WASHOUGAL -- Growing up on her family's dairy in Washougal, Erika Stauffer dreamed of being a teacher and even played "school" with her dolls.
When she was old enough, she attended rural Cape Horn-Skye School about seven miles up the Washougal River Road from her family's farm. Now she's a first-year teacher at her old school, where she teaches second grade.
"It's always been my dream to come back up here," Stauffer said. "I love this school. This small-town community feel."
Although it's part of the Washougal School District, Cape Horn-Skye School is just over the Clark County border in Skamania County. Its bucolic setting near the meandering Washougal River is about 27 miles from downtown Vancouver.
As a student at the rural school, Stauffer was inspired by her teachers Margie Gary and Jocelyn Aldridge.
"They were encouraging, personable, positive. Easy to relate to," Stauffer said. "I always looked up to them."
Both women still teach at Cape Horn-Skye and, just as in the past, they've been encouraging and supportive to Stauffer.
As a first-year teacher, Stauffer participates in the Beginning Educators Support Team grant program and is mentored by another second-grade teacher in her building. She also meets with other first-year teachers in other schools "to talk about how the year is going," she said. "It's been helpful."
"I've known I wanted to be a teacher since middle school," Stauffer said. "I've always loved working with kids and wanted to make a positive difference in their lives."
She attended Canyon Creek Middle School next door to Cape Horn-Skye. After graduating from Washougal High School in 2008, she attended Washington State University and graduated with her teaching degree last May. Then she started applying for teaching jobs.
"I saw a job opening here, at my old school," Stauffer said. "My dream job."
'Heads above' the others
More than 100 teachers applied for the position at Cape Horn-Skye School. Mary Lou Woody, the school's principal, recognized Stauffer's name and called her former principal at Washougal High School to ask if he would recommend her for the job. He gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.
"Erika is a shining star," said Woody. "She was heads above the other applicants."
"Since the day I started, I've been welcomed by the other teachers," Stauffer said. "There's a lot of parent involvement. I've grown to appreciate that."
Three days before winter break began, students' excitement over the upcoming holiday was palpable in Stauffer's classroom, but the new teacher remained calm and in charge. She stood at the front of her class and demonstrated how to make pipe cleaner Christmas ornaments dipped in a borax solution to form crystals. Then students gathered around their teacher as her busy
hands tied a ribbon to each finished ornament. One girl hummed "Jingle Bells."
Violet Hancock bent a pipe cleaner around a snowman cookie cutter to make an ornament. "It's hard," she said, "but it's going to be awesome."
"I need help with my Christmas tree," said Jacob Hobson.
Stauffer obliged, then handed the ornament back to the boy.
"Can I make two ornaments?" a student asked.
"No. One ornament each," Stauffer said. "But when you're done, you get to decorate a gift bag for your ornament."
As the students finished making their ornaments, the energy level in the room increased, but Stauffer controlled the potential chaos.
"If you're done making your ornament, you should be sitting at your desk decorating a bag for your ornament," she reminded them.
When the students finished their art project, Stauffer dismissed them for recess. Students grabbed coats from their cubbies, lined up and rushed out the door. The classroom was silent. Stauffer sat down in a second-grader-sized chair and began tidying the craft table.
Even though winter break was just days away, she was already anticipating teaching a new science unit in January.
"They'll be learning about solids and liquids through hands-on activities," Stauffer said. "How fun is that?"