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story.lead_photo.caption Cheryl Viessman is the first-grade teacher at River Oak Christian Academy. She started at River Oak three years ago after 30 years of teaching in public schools Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Depending on the student, the first day of first grade can be an adventure, challenge or ordeal.

It can be equally difficult for teachers, who in a brief amount of time have to get to know their new students — their strengths, weaknesses and personalities.

There are multiple assessments teachers and schools do for children that demonstrate where the students are in reading, math and writing, said Cheryl Viessman, first-grade teacher at River Oak Christian Academy in Jefferson City.

"I don't start there. I want to know who they are inside," Viessman said. "One of the things I love most about doing my (Gingerbread Man search) — I know a lot more about who the kids are by the time I finish."

For each of the past 24 years, in several different schools, the teacher has staged a first-day search for the Gingerbread Man for her first-grade students. She gets staff involved, and they set out clues for the students throughout the school.

It's always done in the first hour of class.

"When I'm finished, I know who can take redirection because it's an exciting time," she said. "They will take off and run ahead of me. I'll know who I can corral back in and who that's difficult for."

She'll know who the shy students are because they'll hang toward the back of the line and are not sure about what's coming or if they even want to be a part of it — but they will participate because they know they have to do what she asks.

"I know who my dreamers are because we'll look for (the Gingerbread Man) on the playground with our pretend binoculars — and three of them see him and know that they've seen him," Viessman said.

As Viessman spoke — during her planning time early in the afternoon — a quiet boy walked into her classroom and gave her a hug.

She quickly asked Jayce how second grade is.

"Good," he replied. A quick high-five and he was off to parts unknown.

"That's my life," Viessman said. "The kids know — once mine, always mine. We build tremendous relationships by the end of the year."

Viessman builds those relationships with the children and their parents, she said.

Some of the children have a little separation anxiety when they move on, but when they know they can always go back and visit with Viessman, it's a little easier for them.

Some, she sees regularly. Some, she sees for a while, and they begin to do their own things.

Viessman worked in the public school system for more than 30 years. One of her stops within the system was at East Elementary School.

That's where the Gingerbread Man search developed.

"It came out of — new school, new teamwork," she said. "I knew I was working with an at-risk population, and we wanted to make the first day memorable."

Teachers should strive to give students memories that are positive, she added.

Her students want to be at school — to the point where parents have called and asked her to speak to their child and tell them it's OK to miss a day of class when they have a 103-degree temperature, Viessman said.

A few years ago, she was preparing to retire from the public school system — to step back from teaching and possibly return from time to time as a substitute and volunteer in classrooms.

Her sister, Viessman said, asked her what she would do if she retired.

"I don't have any idea, but God's going to drop it in my lap," she responded.

The day she retired, Viessman received a call from Ginger Phelps, the second-grade teacher at River Oak Christian Academy and a long-time friend.

"We think you're supposed to come to River Oak," Phelps said.

Teaching can leave someone worn down, tired and feeling defeated, her old friend said.

"That's the way I felt the day I retired," Phelps told her. "What I do now, I could do for the rest of my life."

The conversation Viessman had with her sister popped into her mind.

"I know what I'm supposed to do," she said. "The next day was the last day of school. I walked out of school and was retired. I walked in here the next day and signed my contract. What I'm doing right now, I could do for the rest of my life."

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