Class Acts: A Q&A with Kelly Martins

Leigh Ann Farkas nominated fifth- grade teacher Kelly Martins for Class Acts. Farkas said Martins is a dedicated teacher who cares for her students in many ways. When Farkas' son Justin was out of school ill for a month, Martins volunteered to come to their home and teach him several times a week. He returned to school ahead of the class, Farkas said. Martins treats the kids as if they are her own, Farkas added.

• Name: Kelly Martins

• Age: 47

• City of residence: Modesto

• Occupation: Fifth-grade teacher at Sipherd Elementary School

• Family: Husband, Geoffrey; daughters Erin, 28, Brook, 26, and Shay, 21; and granddaughter Jaiden, 4

• Education background: Bachelor's degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on special education

• Teaching experience: 13 years teaching fifth grade and fourth-fifth combo classes

Why did you get into teaching? I wanted to help things make sense for struggling students. I came into teaching with the perspective of a parent who had a child with learning difficulties. She usually was not low enough to get assistance, but low enough to be constantly struggling. I felt there was more we could be doing for these students.

What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? Having a student come back to see me and letting me know what is happening in his or her life. It gives me a sense of accomplishment because I must have had some sort of impact.

What is the most challenging part of your job? Teaching such large class sizes with students at so many different levels is a real challenge in the classroom. The bar is set very high with state standards; it is difficult to meet the needs of each student and keep them motivated to achieve the standards.

What is the most important lesson you've learned? It's important to listen to my students and remember that we all come from different backgrounds so our priorities and perspectives will not always be the same.

What is your favorite teaching tool or activity? Reading aloud Junie B. Jones books to my class. When I read Barbara Parks books, I become what I perceive the character Junie B. to be, and my students love her as much as I do. It's fun to model how reading can take you away into your own imagination.

What's next in your classroom? This year has gone so quickly and is almost over, but we will be spending time studying health and nutrition. We are also looking forward to learning a dance for our annual May Festival.

What advice do you have for students? It's important that you accept responsibility for your own learning. You can achieve whatever you want in life if you put in the work.

What advice do you have for parents? Your kids need you to be involved in their education. They need a parent, not a friend; you will build a friendship later when they become adults and you have fully prepared them for independence.

What will it take to improve academic success in the valley? Wow, that is the million-dollar question that everyone is searching for an answer to. Our students are so confused now with the fast pacing and rigorous standards that we are getting an increasing number of students that lack basic skills. I think we need to have developmentally appropriate standards that are realistic, and we need to have time to teach to mastery at these early levels of education.

How do you reach students not interested in school? I connect by trying to find their strengths and build on that. I also share stories from my own life. I believe all kids want to do well in school, but more often than not, circumstances in their daily lives are affecting their academic success. Then it becomes about listening, helping, guiding and doing what works best for them.

What one area should schools put more emphasis on? Accountability, because we live in a world where excuses have become the norm for irresponsibility. When I started teaching, my very wise mentor teacher used to teach her kids this saying and I pass it on to my students: "Excuses are nails in the house of failure."

If you could change one thing about the current educational system, what would it be and why? I would change giving grades. We all have different learning modalities, so we should encourage personal goal setting and monitor the gains of students based on where they are coming from, not whether they have reached a goal that has been set beyond their capabilities.

What would surprise people about your job? How many hours I work. I never work 8-to-3. I usually work late at school, and then work goes home with me nearly every night. This is a never- ending job.

What are your future plans? I will continue teaching until it's time to retire. Then I plan on traveling and spending time with my grandkids and grand- doggies.