Lee County teacher thrives in profession she first avoided

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG -- Coni Grebel smiles often and laughs as frequently.

Her students seem at ease with her as she provides a motherly touch in their sometimes stressful and chaotic lives at Lee County High School.

One of Grebel's students on the school newspaper staff she teaches recently arrived in tears shortly after leaving her class to sell the first issue of the student paper.

She told Grebel that one of the school's hall monitors wanted her to display a hall pass. The adult didn't care that Grebel had an agreement with school administrators that students' would be using their newspaper staff designed T-shirts as their pass.

"You have a birthday (tomorrow)," Grebel kindly told the student as she held her shoulders. "You have no reason to cry."

The student soon wiped her eyes and collected herself at a nearby desk in the warm environment of Grebel's classroom. Looking after the needs of her students in her journalism, English and composition classes is what Grebel does exceptionally well. Her frequency to win awards and achievements validates her abilities and efforts.

Grebel recently was named the 2009-10 Teacher of the Year for the Lee County School System after being chosen TOTY for Lee County High by her peers. She was ranked the sixth best journalism adviser in the nation as part of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year Award.

The honor gave her an opportunity to attend the award ceremony and its conference in Washington, D.C., last week with seven of her students. Grebel and her students each raised money to pay their own way for the trip.

The Dow Jones recognition is one of the many achievements and grants she has collected since 2003. Grebel was selected Georgia's Journalism Teacher of the Year for 2009-10, an honor she also earned in 2005-06. She was chosen Lee County Chamber of Commerce's Educator of the Year for 2006-07.

Grebel received a $7,500 grant from the Newspaper Association of America for 2008-09 after getting a $2,500 grant from the same group in 2006-07. She also earned a fellowship study at the University of South Florida from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005 after she received a $5,000 partnership grant from them for 2004-05. The Albany Junior Woman's Club also gave her a $250 grant for her English classroom in 2003-04.

But in keeping with her humble personality, Grebel doesn't get caught up in all the accolades.

"You're either modest about it, or you're the other way about it and I don't want to be there," she said.

Grebel's humility likely comes from the hard work she has put into her 17-year teaching career to become a good educator. It also springs from the equally strong effort she's put into avoiding getting burned out.

"I've had to work at having the rapport with (students)," said Grebel, who has three grown daughters and has been married to her husband, Rick Jr., for 31 years. "I run into people I taught before and I wish I could teach them now. Being an older teacher, you can either get burned out or decide what you're going to do, and be happy and change what you're going to do."

After teaching English for nine years, Grebel received an unexpected change when she was asked to become the school's journalism teacher eight years ago.

"I walked into pre-planning one year and they said, 'We need a journalism teacher,' and I was it. I cried," said Grebel, who grew up in Cochran and has lived in Lee County since 1978. "I've always loved writing and I kind of needed a boost. I was ready to get re-motivated and teaching journalism has done that to me. It takes the best part of teaching English and brings in the real world.

"I started off thinking journalism is the writing, but found out it's teaching a lot more," she continued. "It's teaching photojournalism, graphic arts, advertising, interview skills, using the equipment you got and upgrading when you can."

The first issue of the 2009-10 Lee County High's student newspaper, titled The Panoptic, was published Nov. 6. The 16-page broadsheet newspaper is sold to students for 50 cents as a way to defer printing costs. Grebel printed 500 copies of the first issue and will increase the paper's circulation to 1,200 later in the school year as the students "get better," as she put it.

The first issue includes color photos and advertising from such Albany icons as Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Pearly's. Stories range from a student discussing car troubles; tattoos; and a benefit rock concert for Lily Pad. It also featured expected coverage on sports, homecoming and humorous columns.

Unfortunately, like all newspapers, it also included some mistakes, which Grebel leaves in order for the students to fully learn from their work, as well as to take ownership of it.

"I used to change errors, but I don't anymore because it's their paper," said Grebel, who also oversees the Lee County High School Ninth Grade Campus paper, Catalyst 9.

Grebel credits The Albany Herald and the Lee County Ledger as being instrumental in her growth as a journalism teacher. She said former Herald Publisher Gary Boley and Editorial Page Editor Kay Read helped her apply for a American Society of Newspaper Editors grant to attend its Summer Institute for Advisers at the University of South Florida, a two-week intensive training program. The experience helped her gain a network of journalism teachers across the country, which she still utilizes today.

Her efforts have paid off as many of her students, administrators and community members think highly of her skills and work ethic. Senior Jessica Word, the editor of the Panoptic, said Grebel has helped her come out of her shell and given her the boldness to talk to anyone. Word plans on pursuing a career in journalism because of Grebel.

"She's very encouraging and she's always there for all the students," said student Dustin Taylor, a senior, who had Grebel for a sophomore literature class. "She's really nice and she's always there to help us. She works hard."

Sophomore student Kelsey Walker said Grebel's decision to not fix students' errors has been beneficial.

"She helps us learn from our mistakes," she said. "She doesn't give up on us and she inspires us."

She not only inspires her students, but also fellow teachers and administrators. Lee County High Principal Kevin Dowling said Grebel recently had a root canal and came back to school at 10 p.m. that same day to get the paper out. The third-year principal emphasized that such an occurrence is far from rare and that Grebel exceeds expectations daily.

"She's wonderful," he said. "She's amazing and dedicated."

Sherry Askey, the Parent Teacher Organization president for Lee County High, had Grebel's three daughters baby-sit and teach her twin boys how to swim when they were little. Grebel started Lee County High's swim team in 1993.

"She's always very upbeat and is always in a good mood," Askey said of Grebel. "I don't know why you wouldn't want to be around her."

Interestingly, Grebel at one time in her life shunned becoming a teacher.

"As a matter of fact, I was determined to do anything but teach," she wrote recently in her Georgia Teacher of the Year application form. "The daughter of a high school teacher, I wanted more excitement. Having my mother as my history teacher only reinforced my determination. Like many of her peers, Mom was a lecturer whose classroom was a great place for an afternoon nap. As much as I loved her, I was miserable in her classroom, and so were my friends."

After working at 4-H camps, as a County Extension home economist, teaching workshops and opening an interior decorating business, family friend Dr. Orval Porter pointed out to Grebel that everything she had done for work involved some form of teaching -- minus the classroom. Grebel heeded the advice. She went back to college for teacher certification and graduated from Georgia Southwestern State University in 1992.

"Almost immediately, standing in front of a classroom felt like finally finding a pair of shoes that fit," wrote Grebel in the application. "... My students know that I love being a teacher. They not only see me smile, they laugh with me. My courses are rigorous, but I have learned that humor in the classroom does not have to compromise the rigor of a course. Instead, it serves as a bridge in the gaps made by age, race, income or gender.

"The rewards in an engaging classroom are many," she added later in the application. "When class ends and students are surprised that time has flown by so quickly, I am rewarded. When my journalism students show up on a Sunday afternoon to get in some extra work on the school paper, I am rewarded. But I am just as rewarded when my students actively participate in a class discussion, when they ask questions about an essay, when they work together to peer edit a news article or when they first open their newspaper hot off the printing press.

"I know what a nonproductive classroom looks like, simply because I once taught in one. Now my greatest rewards come from the feeling of satisfaction I get when I look around my classroom and can tell that things are happening inside students' heads."