Working to meet the needs of every student in her class - and not just the ones for whom school work comes easily - has been the hallmark of Laura Dampf's teaching style.Â
A second-grade teacher at St. Peter Interparish School, Dampf won the National Catholic Education Association's Distinguished Teacher Award this year for her exemplary effort in the classroom. It is the second time the school has been recognized with the prestigious national award; first-grade teacher Agnes Forck is the previous winner.Â
Dampf received the national award at an NCEA convention held in early April in Houston; more than 7,700 people attended.Â
Originally Dampf planned to earn a degree in child psychology. However, when she needed care for her oldest son, she quickly understood the ability teachers have to reach and help children, which is what she really wanted to do.
"I realized the most important thing I could do is teach, because I realized how trusting I had to be to put my own child in the hands of others," Dampf said.
A graduate of Lincoln University, Dampf earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Lincoln University in 1992 and a master's degree in early childhood and elementary education in 1998. She has been employed at St. Peter's School since 1993. Although she's taught other grades throughout the years - even pitching in to teach the eighth grade one year when a new hire fell through - the majority of her time has been spent with the second grade.
It's a delightful age group, she said.
"Second graders are starting to gain confidence with their reading. They are starting to develop relationships with each other. They are becoming more social," she said.
Asked why she was recognized for the award, Dampf replied: "A good teacher, first of all, cares. A good teacher is one who smiles."Â
She said teaching her students about the power of a smile - really, the power of maintaining a positive attitude - is always her first lesson of the year.
Dampf also said she is part of a strong and supportive team at St. Peter, and that has helped everyone succeed. "What has helped me most over the years is my co-teachers. Our inspiration comes from each other," she said.
Although Dampf hasn't eschewed technology in her classroom, she's not the go-to guru, either. Instead she's relied on a very old-fashioned method of engaging students: She reaches them with caring personal interactions.
"She is a motherly teacher," Principal Joseph Gulino said. "She's a fixer."
Gulino - who "needed fixing" as a kid because he struggled in school - said Dampf understands every child has different needs and she works to discover ways to meet them. "She cares, talks and thinks about them. They are her babies. Most great teachers are like that," he said.
Dampf said her work is about building confidence in her students.Â
"Letting them see they can do it. Encouraging them," she said. "They get down on themselves. A lot of what we do is not about introducing new things, but relating it to something concrete in their lives."
So, if she's teaching her students about geologic formations, she likes to be able to take the children to explore a cave. If the kids are learning about careers in public safety, she enjoys taking them for a walk to a nearby fire station. And the Missouri State Capitol, which is just across the street from the school, is an invaluable resource for dozens of different lessons.Â
The school also encourages fun activities like the annual "Vocabulary Parade." In that event, students take a word with two meanings and dress up in a costume that represents both, and then read the word and the definitions aloud. It's a great way for young kids to expand their vocabulary, Dampf said.Â
"I'm a hands-on person," Dampf said.
Gulino encourages creative approaches like the Vocabulary Parade.Â
"My goal is to make them laugh and want to be here. I want them to want to come to school and feel good here," he said.Â
But at the same time, the focus is on work. For example, when whole classes break for the bathroom, kids are expected to thumb through a book while they're waiting.Â
Gulino said it's part of his job to push his staff. And to that end, he's always sharing with them new research and fresh teaching strategies. "I'm pushing them to go beyond. I tell them, "You're not just a teacher. You're an educator,'" he said. "The difference is that educators gain and pass on knowledge to their peers. They share ideas."
Numerous teachers on the staff have had their ideas published in Today's Catholic Teacher Magazine, he said.Â
Gulino said, when Dampf stepped to the podium to accept the award she "just beamed." Gulino said she's also one of those teachers who challenges him, too. When he sends out a memo, he knows he's likely to get a response from Dampf and her peers.
"She's as good as it gets," he said. "It's not like we've never had disagreements; we don't always see eye to eye."Â
But he said that's the way he likes it.Â
"I want people to think," he said. "We have a very experienced staff. They are open to new ideas and taking chances and being bombarded, by me, with research and modern techniques of educating children."
That theme - that Dampf is one member of a strong team - is a verbal note she strikes often.
"It's who I am surrounded by. I don't see it as an individual thing," she said.