Heidi Owens walked the halls of Jackson Hole High School as a teenager. This year, she walked through those very same doors as a new teacher heading to orientation.
“I was really proud,” Owens said, a shy grin creeping onto her face. “I’ve done all these things, and now I’m back here. It was powerful.”
Owens, a first-grade Spanish dual immersion teacher at Davey Jackson Elementary School, has experienced the Teton County School District No. 1 community in many ways. Now, she’s a colleague of teachers who guided her and educated her as a student. Owens also has friends from high school whose children are starting her class.
Talk about full circle.
The first time Owens experienced what it was like to be in front of, not just in, the classroom was when she was a sophomore at Jackson Hole High School. Students had peer tutoring opportunities, and she decided to try out the profession of teaching for the day. It was a logical choice.
“I’ve always loved kids, always loved being around them,” she said,
Owens worked with Tom Ralston, her high school soccer coach and, at the time, a fifth-grade teacher.
“It put me on the spot,” she said, recalling how she grabbed the lesson book and went for it.
“I loved it,” she recalled. “I absolutely loved it.”
Owens said that being a good teacher is all about growing confidence. Last year she was a paraprofessional educator, or a teacher’s assistant, for first-grade dual immersion classes and frequently acted as a substitute. Last spring Owens took over as the teacher — a challenge — stepping in toward the end of the year.
“I tried to go along with what was already established but also set my own tone,” she said.
“It’s been a lot easier for me this fall because I got to start from me,” she said. “It’s all me and my partner. It’s been really great to feel like it’s mine.”
Owens has long-standing local roots. Her great-great-grandfather had a ranch between Dubois and Shoshone but sold it when the price of cattle plummeted during World War I.
Her dad, retired anesthesiologist Hugh Owens, first came to Jackson in the 1960s as a recent college graduate who, like many, wanted to climb.
Heidi Owens lived in Pocatello, Idaho, as a kid. After mostly being home-schooled she entered Jackson Hole High School as a freshman. She left halfway through her sophomore year and lived for two years on a 48-foot sailboat in Mexico with her parents. Then she returned to the valley for her senior year.
After graduation in 2007, Owens went to the University of Wyoming — on a full-ride scholarship, thanks to the Hathaway Program — to study Spanish. She later earned another degree in elementary education.
“I knew those were my paths,” she said. “But then I had to figure out how to merge them for student teaching.”
Student teaching opportunities through the University of Wyoming are usually in larger cities around the state, and the university encourages teachers not to go to their hometowns.
So when Owens asked about teaching in Jackson’s dual immersion program “every single person told me it was not going to happen.”
As a last-ditch effort she set up a meeting with someone from the Wyoming State Board of Education to present her case. To her surprise she was given the go-ahead to put wheels in motion.
“I knew I wasn’t going to feel good if I didn’t try,” she said.
Owens eventually student-taught on the English side of the dual immersion program as April Repinski’s student teacher. Everything clicked.
“From the very first day I walked into her classroom and watched her teach, I knew this was my dream job,” Owens said. “She’s incredible.”
Owens is passionate about Spanish and about the importance of offering the dual immersion program as an option in our schools.
For native English speakers she sees the program as a way to open the doors to the world to them.
For native Spanish speakers, “they come in here, and half the day they’re the experts,” she said. “We rely on them half the day for their input and their knowledge, and I think that is very powerful.
“Our kids are living in an increasingly globalized world,” Owens said. “And our community is changing. It’s really important to give our kids every chance to access as much of our community as we can. … Additional enrichment opens global doors.”
Owens said there are a lot of simultaneous bilinguals, meaning children who are growing up learning English and Spanish at the same time, in Jackson Hole, a prospect she finds exciting.
“It’s not really one or the other, it’s both,” she said. “It’s perfect for dual, truly, we’re raising these bilingual kids. It’s cool to have all three mixed in.”
At this point Owens thinks it’s rare to find incoming kindergartners who don’t have at least a little exposure to Spanish — even if it’s just numbers or colors.
The structure of the dual immersion classes is one of collaboration. For half the day, lessons are taught in Spanish by Owens, the other half in English by her partner, Jodeen Tebay.
Both teachers want to challenge their students. Each child has a buddy whose native language is different than his or her own. The buddies change every month. By the end of the year everyone has worked together.
“We rely on each other for everything we do,” Owens said.
That teamwork is crucial for kids’ achievement.
“I have high expectations when I switch to Spanish,” Owens said.
For example, when her students give her the right answer in English she encourages them to say it in Spanish.
“You’ve got to hold them accountable while building support so they can feel successful,” she said.
The moment that students make it from support to making connections and building concepts independently is when Owens can see the light go on.
“That’s what we live for as teachers,” she said.
She especially likes teaching first grade.
“They’re so full of excitement to learn,” she said.
Owens is looking forward to the coming months as school kicks into gear.
“I feel like I’m really getting into the groove,” she said. “I’m seeing it take off. There’s a lot of new in the beginning, but now I’m feeling really good.”
Owens knows the best is yet to come.
“To see my students’ growth will be really inspiring,” she said.