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Iowa’s first-ever Teacher of the Year reflects – 61 years later

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Jean Listebarger Humphrey started teaching in Newton in 1951. Two years later, she started teaching in Ames, where she ended her career.

Humphrey became Iowa’s first-ever Teacher of the Year in 1958, and went on to receive the National Teacher of the Year honor that same year.

It’s interesting to note that exactly 60 years after Humphrey’s reign, the Ames school district had its second teacher named Iowa Teacher of the Year – Aileen Sullivan.

Humphrey was recognized in Des Moines during an annual luncheon celebrating some of Iowa’s top teachers.

Here are some of Humphrey’s reflections on teaching.

1. What influenced your teaching the most?
Even as a small child, I had a concern for people and a desire to help others. These attributes could be expressed in many ways while I was teaching. It gave me the opportunity to help each individual child enjoy learning. Hopefully, many of my students learned to be more empathetic and thoughtful of others.

2. What is one of your fondest memories from the classroom?
Whenever John drew any picture, he always placed a rock somewhere in that picture. John later became a geologist.

Peter loved to play the piano and he was always talking to me about Beethoven. Peter and his mother invited me to their home for dessert, and to hear Peter play Beethoven. Peter later became a concert pianist.

Jean Listebarger talking to President Dwight D. Eisenhower

3. How did your teaching style change over the years?
After ten years of teaching I decided to become a full time Mom. I didn’t feel that my style of teaching changed very much during those ten years. I do feel, though, that I became more confident, more relaxed, more focused, and more organized each year.

4. What did your students teach you?
My second grade students taught me to greet the day with enthusiasm and smiles. Most of my second graders were affectionate, appreciative and eager to learn.

5. What did you enjoy most about teaching?
I enjoyed observing the changes in each individual child as the year progressed. I enjoyed sharing their happiness when they began to understand something that had been difficult for them. I enjoyed the challenge of re-directing children with behavior problems.

6. What advice would you give to a new teacher entering the teaching profession today?
Teaching is so much different today than it was 60 years ago. My advice to a new teacher would be to choose the grade level that they enjoy the most. I would encourage them to approach each new day with the idea that they will do their best to help each student in their classroom make progress toward reaching their potential.

McCall’s Teacher of the Year – Jean Listebarger - 1958

Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the March 1958 edition of McCall’s magazine, which was then sponsor of the National Teacher of the Year award. The Council of Chief State School Officers now oversees the National Teacher of the Year program.

Jean Listebarger talking to President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Jean Listebarger talking to President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Parents of children in Miss Jean Listebarger's second grade at the Edwards School in Ames, Iowa, are never at a loss to know what goes on in class. Several times a year, at evening meetings with mothers and fathers, she explains her program-and at the same time gives them the opportunity to ask questions about the school's philosophy and methods.

Miss Listebarger, McCall's National Teacher of the Year for 1958, employs other interesting techniques. For example, she teaches Spanish to the twenty-seven members of her class. She works closely with each child's family to help develop special talents. In the same classroom she is able to challenge her superior students with more assignments while she is encouraging and working overtime with those who are more backward - often with startlingly successful results. Never in her second grade are there "forgotten" children.

Each of the meetings with parents is devoted to a different phase of the second- grade program. Again and again she has found that mothers and fathers become more patient about their child's progress as a result of these meetings. Parents and teacher learn to become co-workers in enriching the lives of their seven-year-olds.

After a trip to the fire station or the post office the boys and girls write their reactions - and in the process improve their spelling and their sentence structure. As the year goes on, some of the second graders will begin to organize their thinking into paragraphs concerned with one central thought. The last fire station trip, incidentally, also inspired two murals made by six boys and girls, who were thus provided an opportunity to express themselves and also to plan and work together. New words, too-such as ax, ladder, boots, siren, helmet-were adapted from the trip to the spelling lesson.

Miss Listebarger makes periodic walks through the woods a normal part of the curriculum. For days afterward the boys and girls study the specimens they bring back, review the trip in prepared talks, make drawings that tell the story of what they have seen, and even write accounts of something unusual that might have happened or been observed.

Great stress is placed on science, for as Miss Listebarger explains to the parents, it is natural for young children to be inquisitive. Everything in their world is new and fresh and wonderful, and therefore at their age they are most receptive to the facts of science. Her children begin building an orderly understanding of the world around them: how seeds are distributed and take root, the place of water and light in our lives, the classification of animals, the relation of temperature to weather and of weather to our daily lives. Young scientists of the future have been vastly encouraged in this class.

Miss Listebarger is one of a very few elementary teachers in Iowa who teach Spanish.

“I believe that a foreign language should be taught at an early age,” she says, “because during these years children are imitative and not self-conscious and can pick up languages quickly. If they learn to love a language when they are young, the chances are that they will want to continue in high school or college.”

Certainly the fine school system at Ames is in part responsible for Miss Listebarger’s success. The Edwards School is a source of community pride, with its roomy, airy classrooms, well equipped for today’s new methods and demands. The room is attractive, with healthy green plants, gaily bound books and exhibits of the children’s own handicraft. What E.C. Aurand, the principal of Edwards, calls a “permissively controlled atmosphere” pervades the room.

A native of Fairfax, Iowa, Miss Listebarger graduated from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in 1951, the year she started teaching. In addition to her schoolwork, she is actively interested in various Methodist youth movements. She is eager to earn a master’s degree, and the chances are that she will soon take a year’s leave of absence from teaching if she can arrange a scholarship.

It is difficult to decide whether Miss Listebarger is most popular with her second graders, their parents or the educational leaders in Ames.

For their part, educators in Ames are gratified by Miss Listebarger’s ability to organize her work, her faultless planning and her great skill. She has a facility, Superintendent of Schools Walter L. Hetzell points out, for improving each child in the class for making each pupil realize that she is interested in him. “She leaves no stone unturned,” he adds, “to provide lessons which will help both the superior child and the slow learner.”

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on June 17, 2021 at 3:33am.