KALAMA — Sheila Stuhlsatz stood at the front of her first-year Spanish class at Kalama High School, holding up plastic bananas to illustrate the lesson on gender and adjective word endings.
For native English speakers, it's not an easy concept to grasp. The English language does not assign gender to nouns.
Holding up a bunch of diminutive plastic bananas, Stuhlsatz said in a tiny voice, "Las bananas pequeñas."
Then she held up a much larger banana and in a deep, booming voice said, "La banana grande!"
Around the classroom students repeated the phrases. Some nodded their heads as if to say: "OK. I get it now."
Her students address Stuhlsatz as "Maestra." That's Spanish for a female teacher.
That's an appropriate moniker for the 29-year veteran educator who has been named the regional Teacher of the Year and a finalist for Washington State Teacher of the Year. The contest is organized by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and Educational Service District 112, which serves Southwest Washington school districts.
Stuhlsatz, 53, is starting her 10th year of teaching at Kalama High School. Before that, she taught Spanish at Shumway Junior High and then at Discovery Middle School in Vancouver Public Schools.
During her 29-year career, Stuhlsatz has taught about 3,000 students. A wall in her classroom is plastered with photos of former students. Former students keep in touch with their "Maestra." One is teaching in Colombia; another who served in the Peace Corps now lives in Paraguay.
"This is a job where you touch people's lives," Stuhlsatz said. "You have the power to make a positive difference in people's lives."
The impact Stuhlsatz has made on thousands of young lives is impressive, but even more so since she didn't graduate from high school.
"I hated high school," Stuhlsatz said. "It was not my cup of tea."
As a teen, her life wasn't easy, and during her junior year, at age 17, she left school and moved in with her grandmother in Pullman. She completed the adult high school diploma, the equivalent of a GED, and started taking classes at Washington State University.
To pay her way, she worked as a waitress. After a year, she moved out on her own.
That hard work paid off. Today she's a national Board Certified Teacher and is on the board of directors for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. She also is an instructor in teacher training programs at City University in Vancouver.
Her community involvement reaches far beyond the classroom. She and her husband, John, raise goats on Mist o' Morn, their 30-acre farm in La Center. She is a longtime leader of the Udderly Goatesque 4-H Club and a Clark County Fair volunteer.
"Every critique she makes after I teach a lesson is unbelievably helpful," said Kaitlin Wright, Stuhlsatz's student teacher from WSU in Pullman.
Six years ago, Stuhlsatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Although still undergoing maintenance chemotherapy, she's been cancer free for five years. When she was sick, the school communities in Kalama and Vancouver rallied around Maestra and provided meals and housecleaning. Two students who were fishermen, Joe Fistolera and Clint Eastman, brought her fresh salmon filets.
"All those Omega-3s are one reason I'm still here today," she said.
Stuhlsatz will be in Olympia over the weekend with the state's other regional teachers. On Monday, she'll attend the award ceremony where the 2014 Washington Teacher of the Year will be announced. The State Teacher of the Year advances to the National Teacher of the Year contest. Last year's National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau, teaches in Zillah, a small town near Yakima.
"I've been working in schools most of my life, so I've observed a lot of teachers," said Cathy Haupt, the school secretary who nominated Stuhlsatz for the award. "Everything about Sheila personifies the best I've seen in teaching. She is loved by both the students and the parents in the community."
"Sheila is exemplary in regards to instructional skill. She is a phenomenal teacher," said Mike Hamilton, principal at Kalama High School. "She also is exceptional in connecting with people, and especially students. I think one of the reasons she makes an outstanding Teacher of the Year candidate is she has become a mentor in our building to new teachers, and also has trained mentors at the regional level. She's taken a significant leadership role to support new teachers as they begin their career in the classrooms."
Stuhlsatz said, "I taught my first class at age 22. I thought I knew everything. Now I'm 53. I have so much to learn."
As class ended, she stood in the doorway to send her students to their next class.
"Every kid who walks through this door is someone's child," she said. "They're special in my eyes. Every one of them."