Science and Spanish 1 teacher Mara Heidemann graduated from the very campus where she now teaches – Cornerstone Academy. She believes her varied experiences – from working in a local hotel to playing and coaching softball– have helped her be a successful teacher during this huge health crisis.
“To me, I believe that my background has helped shape me as the teacher I am today,” she says. “Breaking the mold and moving ahead were my own choices, and they have helped me in this day and time.”
A Spring Branch native, Heidemann is a graduate of Cornerstone Academy and Spring Woods High School, where she played softball. Softball helped later with college scholarships.
She worked briefly at the Omni Westside Hotel and then began her college studies and career climb that has included Blinn College for an associate of arts degree, Lake Charles, La.-based McNeese State University for a bachelor’s degree with Spanish and psychology minors, and then Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Ark., for a master’s degree in kinesiology.
She substituted for a year at Shadow Oaks Elementary while she worked on getting her alternative certification. She was hired to teach at SBISD’s highly rated, district charter middle school campus, where she continues. In her first two years at Cornerstone, she was also an assistant varsity softball coach at Northbrook High School.
A successful and innovative at-home online teacher, Heidemann prepared well for the nasty virus that has put us all on hold at home. Her students were familiar with itslearning, a district platform for online learning. She is also now a member of SBISD’s Vanguard Fellowship, an application-based cohort of teachers interested in transforming their teaching practices. She has several more tech-level credentials with her classroom-based experience. Cornerstone focuses its students and teachers on team and project learning.
So, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order was issued on April 1 for schools to remain closed, the month ahead did not daunt this educator’s belief that most of her students will be fine, learning wise.
“We always have a choice. I am 100 percent good to go,” she says. “We can look at the glass half empty or full. What happens in the future, I can’t control. Should we need to use itslearning to the end of the school year, that’s fine. What’s really important is that we need to be there for our kids.”
Heidemann and other teachers at Cornerstone Academy are ready to be there for their students.
Before discussing any eLearning assignments in the wake of the district’s earliest school closures, Heidemann and her teaching team took time to do a check-in process with students to gauge their well-being.
“Our relationships with our students are extremely important for them to know what they need to do to be successful.,” she says.
The sixth-grade teaching team at Cornerstone has collaborated to continue as many “normal” procedures as possible. They have set up “office hours” for students to contact them with questions, and have continued Professional Learning Community (PLC) discussions and planning for subject groups.
“We have all agreed on making time limits for ourselves, to check in on each other emotionally, and we have really grown together,” Heidemann says of her colleagues.
As the second week of eLearning wraps up in Spring Branch ISD, Heidemann has been “blown away” with how her students are responding to learning at home, with the support of their teachers.
“They are actively engaged in the Digital Backpack, participating in Zoom [video conferencing], and emailing when they have questions,” she says. One big addition to her online classroom, depending on the day and need to be involved, is Smokey Joe, a 115pound Silver Labrador. He sometimes likes to speak up.
“He is my kid at home. He is my fur baby. He shows off every once in a while. He barks!” his parent and teacher notes. Heidemann’s students already know Smokey Joe from a successful bounce back from a life-threatening illness, which occurred before schools closed.
With a common goal of educational growth, Heidemann believes success in this time of learning from home will look different for every student. She understands not all students are at the same level academically, as well as with maturity and technology, but is certain she and her fellow teachers are able to set their students up to succeed.
The digital divide is real, she says, but many of her students with parents who are essential workers, or who have been laid off suddenly, or dealing with a variety of other virus-related issues, do just as well with elearning as those from other, more involved households. Still, she estimates that about a third of her students have not checked in with her yet, are working at a slower pace, or are challenged by unknown situations.
“I love creating instruction that fires up my students to be excited about science,” says Heidemann, who is her school’s 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year.
Keeping parents in the loop with clear communications, reminders, and tips is also an important part of the equation for balancing the emotional and educational needs of students.
“Students, teachers, and parents should be on the same page that the wellbeing of the child comes first, and then the education,” says Heidemann. “We have really come together for the best interests of our students, and that is what I absolutely love about our district, the community in which we live, and the people we work with.”
Looking back at her own life, and the challenges she has faced, she said: “I want to be the teacher that inspires these kids to chase their dreams, change their stars, and know that they have what it takes to do so,” she states.
Thank you, Mara Heidemann and all SBISD teachers, for all you do!