It came out of the blue.
“She was telling me yesterday on the phone that I was a great teacher,” Eaton said. “She said ‘you’ve had such a great year and you’re such a great teacher.’”
Eaton had a quizzical look on her face as she told the story.
“I’m like, ‘thanks mom. We were truly talking about something else, it was completely off the subject,” she said.
Her husband, Paul, piped in, “It was killing her.”
“It was killing her [Eaton’s mom]; now I’m going to tell her I know why she said all that,” she said with a laugh.
What was “killing” Eaton’s mother was that she was one of the few people who knew that on May 12 her daughter would receive the Mid Rivers Newsmagazine 2016 Excellence in Education award and be named Mid Rivers’ Teacher of the Year. She had been selected by a panel out of hundreds of entries.
Sponsors of the award include CenterPointe Hospital, Dardenne Dental Arts, Dream Play Recreation, Pulaski Bank-O’Fallon, SuperCuts in O’Fallon and Sylvan Learning Center.
The announcement was made before students and staff – along with Eaton’s husband Paul and sons Caleb and Joshua, who were also in on the secret – gathered that morning in the school gymnasium and chapel.
“I had no idea. In fact I was thinking about all the people it was going to be in my head as I was sitting in the chair. I did not think at all it was going to be me,” she said. “I was completely shocked.”
A look of surprise came over her face when Vicky Czapla, advertising manager for Mid Rivers Newsmagazine, made the announcement. That lead to wiping away a few tears as she was called up for the presentation and for a whirlwind of applause, picture taking and thanks from staff, family and finally her 12 kindergartners.
By the time pictures were taken with her 6-year-old “kiddos,” Eaton was back in charge.
“Can I get my boys to stand next to me right here and can I get my sweet girls to stand in front of the boys?” she asked.
A little bit of adjusting here, scooting and fidgeting there, and students were ready with smiles and a resounding “cheese” as photographers snapped away.
Being in charge in a classroom of students whose heads come up just above her waist, is something that Eaton has been doing for a longtime now.
Eaton, 47, has taught kindergarten at Living Word Christian School, a private nondenominational school, for 14 of her 20 years as a teacher and educator. She started out as kindergarten teacher for three years in the Riverview Gardens School District and worked with the Parents as Teachers program in the Fort Zumwalt School District before coming to Living Word Christian School.
“They’re [kindergartners] just precious, I love them, they are at the right age for learning, they just absorb everything you teach them,” Eaton said. “I love kindergarten. It’s the beginning of school, it’s their first experience. If you make it a positive, loving one where they feel safe and secure and loved, I think they can just soar.”
That enthusiasm is shared by parents of the children she teaches.
“I’m so unsurprised by this,” said Teri Kramper, the mother of Alex, one of her students, as she gave Eaton a hug. “She’s outstanding, I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Steve Pogulis, another parent, shares much the same sentiment.
“First and foremost is her passion for teaching the kids and really being invested in them,” Pogulis said. “It’s to the point that she is really a big advocate for what’s best for the kids even though sometimes it might not be the happy message that the parents want.”
Pogulis said she has spent time not only in the classroom, but in tutoring some children outside the classroom who have special needs and also encouraging their Christian faith.
“She lives it, breaths it, walks it, and she goes above and beyond to help the kids,” he said.
After the presentation, Eaton and her son, Caleb, tried to calculate how many kindergarten students she’s taught. The count got to toward 200. And that experience has its special rewards later in life. Her “kiddos” grow into students and then adults. And sometime they remember.
A few years ago she met a “gentleman” at her church who was age 23 at the time.
“He was in one of my very first classes and he goes ‘Are you Mrs. Eaton?’ I say, ‘yes, and you’re Miles.’
“I remembered him, he had the same little sweet face that he had, I imagine it was my second year of teaching, and it was precious, and he gave me a big hug,” she said.
“And that’s why we do the job we do to impact kids for the glory of God so we can reach them and give them the truth and love on them and give them a successful first year,” she added.
After all these years, Eaton said she still loves what she does, though it takes a lot of patience and energy.
“You don’t sit all day,” she said. “But they [kindergartners] say the funniest things, they do the funniest things, you just giggle and laugh with them and enjoy those moments with them, and they are so eager to learn and they are so fascinated by life and the world around them. They really haven’t been tainted, they’re open.”
Ten more years?
“Sure. Lord willing I will do this 10 more years,” Eaton said. “As long as I feel I have the patience and if I feel I have the energy. I don’t want to be the grumpy teacher is waiting for a certain date to retire, I’m going to retire when the Lord tells me that I need to move on.”
Kids still remain who they are, she said.
“I think you see changes but I think that’s because of the society in which we live. Kids don’t get outside as much as they used to,” she said.
“But the heart of the kid is still the same, they want to explore, they want learn, they want to touch things, they want to have fun in the classroom. And that never changes. Learning has to be active and that’s one of the things I tried to throughout the years is make it active.”