State education commissioner bestows award during Friday assembly
PAM CLIFTON, Contributing Writer
“We are celebrating everyone in this room.”
That’s what Potosi High School Principal Jeff Gibson said when he welcomed students and staff to Friday’s “Love Purple, Live Gold” assembly.
Gibson introduced Potosi Superintendent Alex McCaul, who welcomed special guest Dr. Margie Vandeven, the Missouri Commissioner of Education, a former English teacher responsible for more than 900,000 Missouri students and who “will always be a teacher at heart.”
Vandeven, after greeting the audience and asking students to take time to thank teachers who have helped them, said, “I have a very special announcement for the state of Missouri, members of the Potosi High School community, and specifically one of your teachers.”
Vandeven indicated that one of their “favorite Social Studies teachers was named as a finalist in the Missouri Teacher of the Year program.”
“Today … let’s get a drum roll … it is my great honor to announce that Mr. Greg Kester has been selected as the 2024 Missouri Teacher of the Year.”
With that, the crowd erupted with a standing ovation as Kester walked to the podium, Vandeven continuing to speak.
“He believes making lasting relationships with his students is his greatest accomplishment as an educator. He believes in the power of meaningful one-on-one connections with students and the impact it can have on the trajectory of their life. Mr. Kester will represent our state in the national teacher of the year contest, and most importantly serve as an example of the amazing teachers that are serving our students around Missouri,” Vandeven said.
McCaul returned to the podium to echo Vandeven’s sentiments.
“One of the key things she [Vandeven] talked about is the connection he makes,” said McCaul. “That’s the most important thing about Mr. Kester that I know of, not just as a supervisor or superintendent, but as a parent of a child, someone you’ve had a direct impact on and the impact you leave on people.”
Potosi School Board President Rhonda Phares discussed Kester’s early years as a teacher.
“I can tell you from the very beginning, in 1995 when he was hired, when Mr. Kester became a member of the PHS family, we knew he was a keeper,” said Phares. “I know you’re going to laugh at this, but I thought about milking a cow,” she said. “When you milk a cow and the cream comes to the top, Mr. Kester is that cream.”
She said when he started at Potosi High School as a first-year teacher in 1995, he may not have been at the top.
“But he has certainly risen to the top,” she said. “From the very beginning, we knew he was a keeper, and we knew he was an outstanding teacher.”
Phares said Kester demonstrates all the wonderful traits of an outstanding teacher: professionalism, good character, strong work ethic and much more. He works well with the staff.
“One of the most important things Mr. Kester does is he has respect for his students, and they have respect for him,” she said. “He well deserves this award.”
Phares mentioned Ilene Garcia, a teacher in the DeSoto School District and a former student of Kester’s.
When Phares told Garcia that Kester had been named Missouri Teacher of the Year, Garcia’s response was immediate: she wasn’t surprised at all. Kester had always been kind to her and other students and always listened to them and tried to help them with their problems. She said he is a role model for her now as a teacher.
Phares said the Potosi School Board members were very proud of Kester and what he’s done for the high school and community.
Missouri State Rep. Mike McGirl then spoke, saying Friday’s event was the kind he likes to attend, especially “when you’re recognizing somebody in the community and in the school that has such an impact on students.”
McGirl is a former PHS graduate and so are his daughters.
“I can tell you, they have the utmost respect for Mr. Kester,” he said. “He was always available and he was an excellent instructor. He has done such an excellent job here.”
Potosi Mayor Joseph Blount said it was an honor Kester has been in the district “to teach the young minds of our community” and “to be a mentor to those pursuing and furthering their education.”
“Thank you for your hard work and dedication you have shown over the many years in our district and community,” said Blount. “Congratulations on a seamless career and your incredible achievement being named Teacher of the Year for the state of Missouri.”
Kester’s wife Amy and sons Jack and Alex exchanged hugs with Kester before returning to their front-row seats.
Jaclyn Rowe, one of Kester’s former students, told the audience about how he continues to challenge his students. “That’s how you make it to the top in teaching,” she said. “You challenge your students.”
She recalled being in Kester’s class and how it was “hard.” “My son has you [now] first hour so some things come full circle,” she said to Kester.
Rowe told how she has served on a scholarship committee for the last 10 years. One of the questions the scholarship finalists are asked is which teacher has inspired them the most.
“Over and over their answer is Mr. Kester,” she said. “That speaks to all your years of instruction and your character.”
After recognizing representatives from DESE, the Missouri Teacher Development System, Missouri Rep. Chris Dinkins, her staff, and other guests, McCaul welcomed Kester to speak.
Kester first thanked his wife, Amy. “She is my daylight in the dawn, my cool breeze on a warm summer day, every star in the midnight sky, and the source from which all good things in my life flow,” he said.
Kester thanked all of his former and current students. “To those of you in my class now, the most enjoyable part of my career is getting to know you and watching you grow and mature.”
He thanked the entire PHS staff.
“This is a reflection of a fantastic team of individuals, departments and colleagues. There are so many incredible teachers here who pour their life and soul into this.”
He concluded with a challenge to all PHS students: find a teacher and thank them.
“Express your appreciation to them for making a tremendous impact on your life.”
29 years of teaching
This is Kester’s 29th year at Potosi High School. He teaches American History, Psychology, Sociology (next semester) and American Political Systems students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades. These are dual-credit courses for Mineral Area College but some students elect to take the classes without college credit. In addition, Kester is the cadet teacher coordinator for about 100 students who work with younger kids in the district to teach lessons, help with one-on-one instruction and tutor.
Kester’s story is unique because he said he didn’t choose Potosi. Instead, Potosi chose him when they called in 1995. He became the last person hired in the district.
“There was no teacher shortage back in those days,” he said. “Social Studies applicants were a dime a dozen.”
During his first year, he taught one section of government and supervised In-School Suspension (ISS).
Kester said he has always believed in creating a positive rapport with his students. Once they leave PHS, he tries to stay in touch with as many of his former students as possible.
“I care about so many of them like they are part of my family,” he said. “I am fortunate that I get to spend day after day, year after year with my pupils.”
Kester said this is called “looping,” where students and instructors are together for multiple hours a day for multiple years. This scheduling allows him to get to know his students.
“I’m going to two different weddings in October of former students, and I am very, very excited for them,” he said.
Kester shared some meaningful stories of some of his former students.
“At PHS, I coordinate our students’ entry into the VFW Voice of Democracy competition. We had a young man a few years ago place at the state level. He received a nice scholarship that helped him pay for part of his collegiate education. That was nice to see.”
Other times, Kester is there when students face challenges.
“Students have really bad things going on in their lives and they just need to get it out. I try to listen and encourage them to keep their hope of a brighter future in mind. I don’t really know how much one individual instructor makes a difference, however. I teach in a place with extraordinary classroom teachers, counselors, social workers, cooks, janitors, and bus drivers. Everyone is part of a team that cares for kids. I think it is the collective effort of everyone that makes a difference.”
Kester found out that Dr. Jennifer Fischer, a former student, nominated him for the award. She works at University of Missouri-St. Louis developing the next generation of classroom art teachers.
“I specifically remember her leaving me a note on my desk in which she expressed her displeasure with me and my class,” he said. “Something about how my classes were a waste of everyone’s time. Perhaps she changed her mind. Perhaps she was just being facetious. I don’t know.”
Kester learned from the DESE website at lunch the day the finalists were announced. He immediately texted his wife.
Since being awarded Missouri Teacher of the Year on Friday, Kester has reflected in the hours after receiving the prestigious award.
“I have so many to thank: my former and present students, my past mentors, my colleagues, past and present administrators. I have been trying to thank them all, but it’s hard to find enough time to thank all of them individually.”
Kester’s wife is an attorney at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in the Special Projects Division.
“She works every day representing underserved and less privileged clients,” he said. “She is the person I admire the most in the world.”
The couple have been married 27 years.
Amy said Greg is “everything you could ask for in a husband and as a father to our two boys. He is not only a dedicated teacher but is also dedicated to his family. He serves as a role model to our sons.”
When Amy found out Greg had been chosen as Missouri Teacher of the Year by a call from Superintendent McCaul, she could not have been prouder of him.
“Greg is deserving of this award because I know of no educator more dedicated to those he teaches,” she said. “He is both dedicated to his students in their academic pursuits but also as who they are as individuals.”
She said he is extremely dedicated to his role as an educator.
“He gets up early every morning, drives nearly an hour in the dark and, as I understand it, is one of the earliest to get to the school building in the mornings,” said Amy. “He puts in a full day and is often one of the last teachers to leave. In addition to that, he is often found grading papers at home.”
Kester described their sons as incredible, talented, hard-working and gifted in many ways.
“They are both exceedingly intelligent but have their own unique interests,” he said.
Alex writes music, plays multiple instruments, sings, and enjoys theater and marching band.
Jack is an athlete and is a leading member of his select baseball team in St. Louis.
Alex, 15, is a sophomore in high school. He thinks this honor for his dad is well-deserved because of the lives he has impacted throughout his career.
“He is deserving of the award because of the efforts he puts into his classes and the other responsibilities he takes on outside of class,” said Alex. “Meeting the people my father has impacted who also have kids my father has impacted made me truly realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that my father is most deserving of this award.”
Jack, 14, said, “I think it’s pretty amazing how he was the one teacher chosen from over 70,000 in the state of Missouri. It’s not a surprise to me though. He deserves the award because he is not only a good educator but he also cares deeply about his students.”
Kester also enjoys fishing “probably too much.”
He concluded by saying he wants to use this award as a platform to help encourage teachers to stay in the profession, saying retention of educators “is crucial.”
“Recruitment is important, but a more experienced educator is more effective,” he said. “If we see new teachers come into the profession but leave after five years, then we are on a treadmill and not moving forward.”
Kester said he also wants to represent the Potosi R-3 School District in the best possibly way.
“There are extraordinary people making incredible differences in young lives,” he said. “If anyone has lost faith in their fellow citizens or is worried about what direction we are going as a nation, come watch the faculty, staff and administrators at the Potosi R-3 District. You will be refreshed and enlivened when seeing these people go the extra mile day after day when they not just educate, but care for children. I am constantly amazed and astounded at the lengths that everyone goes to as they help improve young people’s lives.”