Kim Rupard was told as a teenager that she’d never be able to have biological children, so she embraced all the students she taught.
“I always loved little kids when I was younger, loved to be around them or help with activities,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I was told I’d probably never have kids. I wanted kids to be a part of my life. I thought, ‘Well, I could be a teacher.’ That pushed me more toward them.”
Rupard, who is in her 28th year of teaching kindergarten at McRae Elementary School, is the Searcy School District Teacher of the Year.
“That was exciting; I was kind of shocked,” she said.
McRae Principal James Gurchiek said it’s a well-deserved honor for many reasons.
“No. 1 is, she enjoys working with kids. You know, teachers can tell horror stories of kids they can get, but she’s one that she has a heart for kids and tries to do whatever she can to help them out … and makes sure she’s teaching them those life skills,” Gurchiek said. “She has the heart to be a good teacher.”
He said that among her colleagues, Rupard is “that go-to person” if a teacher is having a hard time. He said a few years ago, a teacher gave birth prematurely to twins, and Rupard made sure the woman got care packages from the staff. The woman has moved away since, but “Mother’s Day is coming up, so she made the suggestion, ‘Let’s get a care package to send to her,’” he said, adding that Rupard is an “outstanding cook.”
“On the professional side, as far as education, sometimes I’m the messenger of different PDs (professional development) we’ve got to go to. She’s one who will pull herself up by her bootstraps: ‘OK, this is something we’ve got to do.’ She is very professional.”
Rupard, 51, did her student teaching at McRae Elementary when kindergarten was only a half-day program. She did student teaching from August till December, then did substitute teaching. The next fall, when the numbers grew and a class was added, she was hired, and kindergarten was a full day.
“It was exciting because I had my own kids. That’s like a big deal because they’re yours,” she said.
Rupard grew up on a family farm in Farrville, a small community near Jonesboro in northeast Arkansas, and she attended the Brookland School District until the ninth grade, when her family moved to Searcy.
She earned her undergraduate degree at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro and her master’s at Harding University in Searcy.
Education has changed in the past 28 years, she said. When she started teaching, she gave them math and reading sheets, let them play in centers in the classroom, made Kool-Aid every day and had recess.
“We taught, but it was specific things. … Now, you have a plan to follow and a scope and sequence and a lot more standards and skills they have to learn,” she said. “We have a set of standards we follow through the state. … We’re reading, writing; we’re doing everything. One good thing is, we have leveled readers, so that way, everybody can kind of be at their own pace.”
Kindergartners also have to learn the social part of school.
“It’s like herding a bunch of little chickens or cats to get the social part,” she said.
Children say the darnedest things, but Rupard is mum on any stories.
“I always say, ‘What happens in kindergarten stays in kindergarten,’” she said, laughing. “They’ll pretty much tell you anything. They’re just honest enough to tell you, and they trust you.”
Rupard said her philosophy of teaching came from something she learned in college.
“It always stuck in my head what they said in one of the classes: ‘Play is the work of children.’ In kindergarten, they learn through play,” she said. “Even as adults, you want to have fun. … They’re 5 and 6, so they need to feel like they’re having fun to engage and be hands-on learners.”
Rupard said she likes “real experiences” for her students.
“If we’re talking about something, … whether it’s a food group and you’re cooking snacks, or making some kind of experience that’s hands-on, they’re going to remember that.
“One of my favorite quotes from Benjamin Franklin is, “Tell me, and I forget; teach me, and I remember; involve me, and I learn.’ I think that’s perfect for kindergarten.”
Although Rupard has a classroom full of students every year, she still had the deep desire to be a mother. So Rupard, who has never been married, adopted Jack from Texas; then Max, through the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
“My first little boy died. He had a rare seizure disorder we discovered when he was probably 6 months old; he lived to be 3,” she said.
“Jack, when he was born, he was fine. I went and got him from the hospital. … His head would bobble; he couldn’t hold it up. Spring came, and he was still bobbling. My mom kept saying, ‘Kim, he just doesn’t move right.’ We were waiting to see a neurologist the day before school started in August. He broke out in seizures and had seizures for 24 hours straight.”
Rupard said Jack spent most of his life in Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where he got excellent care, but he had the abilities of a 1-month-old when he died in 2008.
“My family will tell you, I was meant to have Jack,” she said, because she was able to get him quality care in Arkansas, for one.
Max, 9, “is energetic, loves music and dancing. He has a great imagination, … and I am so thankful to have him in my life,” she said.
Rupard said she has paperwork to fill out to be in the running for Arkansas Teacher of the Year. A panel will select 16 regional finalists, then four semifinalists. Members of the panel visit the schools to see the teachers in action before naming the state winner.
Rupard said her goal is to teach 10 more years before retiring, which will allow her to be in the district until Max graduates from high school.
“I’ll probably come back and volunteer at school here,” she said, because she can’t imagine not being around all those children.
“I’m with them all day long. I tell them, ‘You’re my school family,’” she said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.