Chris Young was already looking forward to returning to school, and a back-to-school rally on Tuesday provided the final boost he needed to feel ready.

“This is one of those motivators for faculty,” said Young, a French teacher at Joplin High School. “They (the students) are coming whether you’re ready or not, so this kind of gets you in that mindset.”

The Joplin School District formally welcomed back teachers and staff members on Tuesday morning with its annual rally, held this year at College Heights Christian Church. The two-hour event included several guest speakers, as well as performances from the Joplin High School marching band, cheerleading squad and JROTC Color Guard.

Kristi McGowen, a high school business teacher and the district’s 2013 Teacher of the Year, said the theme of the upcoming school year, Destination Ahead, is appropriate.

“Many of us weren’t ready to be here, but we came anyway because we knew it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Sometimes it seems like it takes forever to get our kids from Point A to Point B, but we keep pushing to get them there. Sometimes we get going too fast, and it takes someone or something to slow us down and help us enjoy the ride. I can’t think of a better thing for our school year than Destination Ahead.”

As an extension of that theme, Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said teachers have a lot to look forward to as the district continues its focus on 21st century learning. A number of initiatives to support that focus have been implemented, including one-to-one technology initiatives at the high school and eight grade levels.

But teachers remain at the heart of the education, even in the technologically savvy 21st century, she said.

“Having equipment does not ensure students learn skills,” she said. “It’s more than that. The technological tools can enhance what a teacher does, but how a teacher designs student learning opportunities is more important.”

The rally also carried a motivational tone, as several of the speakers encouraged teachers to stay true to their jobs and students.

Randy Gariss, a pastor at College Heights Christian Church, said teachers don’t often receive the visual support of a band or applause, but their work is admirable nonetheless. And for some, he said, it can be life-changing, as their presence can be the one consistent presence in a student’s life.

“The heroic seldom looks heroic at the moment,” he said. “It’s only the perspective afterward, after the ordinary has been done, that you look up and say ... ‘That changed the world.’”

Superintendent C.J. Huff said the months that make up this academic year will be full of transition, as the district prepares to open three new schools in January 2014 and its new high school exactly one year from today. He called on teachers to remember their “noble purpose” despite changes that they face.

“Your community believes in you; your Board of Education believes in you; I believe in you,” Huff told the 1,300 teachers and staff members who were at the rally. “The kids arrive in less than 48 hours. It’s our time; let’s get to work.”

Kelly Davis, a third-grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School, said she appreciates the back-to-school rally.

“Every year, I come and I forget how inspiring it is and how emotional I get,” she said. “It serves its purpose to remind us why we’re here.”

Davis said she is excited to meet her new third-graders and get to know them.

“I learn so much from them,” she said. “You expect the teacher to teach, but I learn how to be a better person. I learn patience. And it’s relationship-building.”

Opening day

THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL for Joplin students is Thursday. Classes at College Heights Christian School, Carthage, Carl Junction, Seneca, McDonald County and Miami, Okla., also begin Thursday.

SCHOOL STARTS TODAY for students in Webb City, Neosho, Jasper, Joplin Area Catholic Schools and Columbus, Kan.

PITTSBURG, KAN., SCHOOLS will hold two opening days: Thursday for sixth- and ninth-graders, and Friday for everyone else. Baxter Springs, Kan., schools will open today for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade as well as for ninth-graders, and on Thursday for everyone else.

THOMAS JEFFERSON Independent Day School in Joplin and Lamar schools will begin classes on Monday, Aug. 19.

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