Teaching for Life

Besides parents and guardians, no one influences children more than teachers. They work beyond school hours to meet with administrators, communicate with parents and stay in touch with the community—all in an effort to make sure students reach their academic goals. In the schools of Coconut Creek, that impact is felt throughout the city and beyond.

To usher in the new school year, Coconut Creek Lifestyle spoke to three teachers, covering an entire school career: Mary Stollings from Tradewinds Elementary School, Jennifer Konikoff from Lyons Creek Middle School and Johnnie Sloan from Coconut Creek High School. Among the questions they candidly addressed: Dealing with real-world issues in the classroom, some of the challenges that teachers face, and lessons they’ve learned from their students.

[Editor’s Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.]


Mary Stollings
Stollings is a “looping” kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Tradewinds Elementary School (students start kindergarten with her and then move to first grade together). Stollings also is the school’s in-service facilitator, providing information and resources to facilitate implementation of Professional Learning Community models. She is beginning her 14th year of teaching at Tradewinds.

More and more is being asked of teachers these days. What are some unique challenges you deal with that people wouldn’t normally know about?
Fitting it all in is the biggest challenge that I face daily. There never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish all that I have planned or all that is expected. It seems that every year there is more and more added to our plates: new reading resources, individualized intervention programs, state-required daily minutes participating in physical education, minutes students are expected to work on computer programs, etc. However, actual time in the classroom and the length of the school day remains the same. There are also many days that a lesson or activity is so engaging and enriching for the students that it seems a disservice to interrupt the learning to move on to a different activity or lesson that I need to fit in that day.

How do you tackle real-world issues in the classroom?
Heightened security is one of the biggest real-world issues impacting my students and me. We have always practiced safety drills in the classroom; however, now these drills are practiced much more often. … It is challenging to practice these drills while at the same time not scaring, frightening or worrying these innocent babies.

Toward the end of the school year, following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas [High] tragedy, I saw several of my kindergarteners sitting quietly against a wall during their play time. When I asked them what they were doing, they replied in unison that they were playing “Code Red.” That was a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking and eye-opening moment for me and something that, sadly, I will never forget.

How have you had to adjust the way you teach to match this era of social and digital media?
Every year, more and more technology is being added to our classrooms, from Elmo [optical] projectors, student laptops, computer programs, Promethean Boards and, more recently, the Recordex [interactive touch panels]. So, I have had to become more and more tech-savvy. … Technology in the classroom opens doors to new ways of learning; it is interactive, engaging and fun for the students.

Every year, my class participates in a weekly, distance-learning, interactive, instructional program which connects my students with several other classrooms throughout the county for lessons in math, language arts or science.

Many educational and individualized computer programs are utilized in our classrooms. In addition, students have the ability to access these same computer programs at home. However, I have come to learn—and it is important to note—that many of the families in our community do not have internet access in their homes.


Jennifer Konikoff
Konikoff is a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Lyons Creek Middle School. She also teaches Latinos in Action, an elective leadership course for seventh- and eighth-graders. She is a new educator mentor and the sixth-grade language arts professional learning community leader. She has been teaching at the school for four years.

What were some accomplishments in the 2018-19 school year that you were particularly proud of?
Through the Latinos in Action program, I have been able to help first- and second-generation Latinos of Lyons Creek Middle feel empowered and proud of their cultures. I am especially proud of the work that we did at Tradewinds Elementary. Our Latinos in Action students were paired with students who are English-language learners from Tradewinds Elementary in a twice-a-month mentoring program. Not only did they make a positive impact on their mentees’ lives, but they also made positive and professional impressions on the staff.

How do you tackle real-world issues in the classroom?
One of my passions is to create global citizens of our students. I encourage students to constantly think beyond themselves, their surroundings and their known. With this initiative, my students created their own “companies” that were aimed toward real-world problems and finding solutions. The problems that they focused on varied but all together were inspiring: creating more accessible food pantries for the hungry, creating organizations for distressed families, helping endangered [species], pushing technology forward into newer creative spaces, etc.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your students this past year?
My students have taught me that they are tougher and more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for. I find that I learn this lesson over and over each year: Their strength is exhibited in many different ways.

What are some of your goals for the 2019-20 school year?
My goal is to expand the Latinos in Action program to impact the community even more as well as continue to focus on enriching my students’ love for reading and becoming a global citizen.


Johnnie Sloan
Sloan is a ninth-grade math teacher at Coconut Creek High School, where he is also a varsity football coach. He is starting his fourth year of teaching at the school and has been teaching for 13 years.

What are some unique challenges you deal with that people might not know about?
A challenge that most would not know is how much [teachers] actually do for our students. From feeding them when they are hungry, to being a counselor, to protecting them as our own children.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your students this past year?
It is so important to listen to our students and empower them with a voice to speak out. My students are taught to always speak their truth. As teachers, we are sometimes reluctant to allow our students to give suggestions into what will help them because we think we have all the answers. But I learned to let my students infuse their thoughts and actions into the classroom. From that, they begin to take more ownership into their learning and be more involved. For example, the students may agree that they would rather rotate in groups today and do different problems in each rotation, so that is what we will do.

How do you tackle real-world issues in the classroom?
Social media has impacted our kids in so many ways that words or images behind a computer screen or device hold more weight than us, sometimes. So, [last] year, we adopted journaling—I know it sounds crazy in a math class—in which during the first part of class we will write and discuss a topic related to the real world. This allowed the students to be open and build a family bond through the sharing of their personal lives and struggles. Topics are not always related to math. It could be discussing the pros and cons of social media or something like “what makes a family a family.” This all assists in the community-building aspect of my class.

Is there anything else you want readers to know?
I believe that I didn’t choose this job. I was called to do this work. I have a great support system around me, starting with my beautiful wife, Brandice, and my five children. I am thankful for the position God put me in and that allowed me to serve people.


Photos by John Hartzell

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