Kayla Zerr first knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was in the second grade.
It was an unlikely time for her to find the inspiration to enter the teaching profession. Zerr, who will begin her first year as a teacher at Rolling Hills Elementary later this month, had run into obstacles. She was anxious, nervous and "terrified of coming to school." Zerr was retained for an extra year of second grade, and she'd come to dread the classroom.
It was a teacher who made the critical difference in drawing Zerr back to school.
"One night, my teacher called my mom and asked to talk to me on the phone. She said, 'I really miss seeing you at school,'" Zerr recalled. "She said nothing about taking a test. It was just who she was. From that time on, I came to school every day. Even though I was retained, I never felt bad about it. No one ever made me feel stupid or wrong.
"It made me want to make sure that kids who are in the same situation have that same experience."
Zerr was one of nearly 400 educators who reported to Grandview High School on Aug. 1 for the Cherry Creek School District's annual New Teacher Orientation event. The daylong gathering featured educational sessions, meet-and-greets and a presentation from CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried. To properly set the tone, the day kicked off with a raucous welcome performance by Grandview marching band musicians and cheerleaders.
"This is one of the most exciting days of the school year. We have 398 new teachers here today, and this is the first time they get to experience our school district," said Brenda Smith, acting Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for CCSD. "This is to ensure that they have a good foundation when they walk in for the first day of school."
To help establish that foundation, new teachers attended workshops on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), inclusive excellence, educator effectiveness and other subjects, and they got the chance to learn about everything from benefits to the Cherry Creek Education Association.
This year's New Teacher Orientation was also a chance for some of the district's newest arrivals to meet a CCSD veteran who carries a new title for the 2018-19 school year. Scott Siegfried, who started in Cherry Creek Schools as a student teacher 24 years ago, addressed the crowd as superintendent, a title he took on only a few months ago. He spoke of his background and his personal ties to the district, and he spelled out his vision for the coming year and beyond.
"This is where my heart is. Know that I have a deep-seated belief in the Cherry Creek School District," Siegfried said. "I believe in this place and it is an honor for me to be up here today addressing you as new teachers in the district."
Siegfried went on to highlight the district's fundamental mission – "to inspire every student to think, to learn, to achieve and to care" – and to stake out the strategy for fulfilling that goal in the upcoming school year and beyond. He detailed the importance of inclusive excellence, and highlighted the district's increasing focus on innovation and preparedness for every child, no matter their background or academic and professional goals.
"Everything we do is based in what we believe. That's why we're here; we chose education because what's in our hearts," Siegfried said. "Our beliefs, our actions and ultimately our people – you – is what makes Cherry Creek Schools great … In the Cherry Creek School District, we believe that every child belongs and has a right to an education."
He went on to charge the district's newest crop of educators with a straightforward mission, using his own daughter's experience in CCSD as an example. When she reported for her first class in the district, Siegfried explained, his daughter was welcomed with enthusiasm and earnestness by her teacher. She felt welcomed and valued, she felt important and integral. Siegfried encouraged every teacher in the crowd to treat every one of their students with the same degree of care.
That message resonated with Zerr, who was one of 61 Cherry Creek School District alumni to return to the district to teach. Zerr's own experiences as a student who benefited from a dedicated, determined teacher steered her own academic path, and she said she was eager to bring that same quality to her own, second-grade classroom. Coming back to the district was always a goal for Zerr ("I've never had another district in mind), partly because she wanted the opportunity to give back.
"I need my kids to know that they can be vulnerable in my classroom. That means giving them the care and love that they all deserve," Zerr said. "It's about creating a community and letting those second-graders know that they're valued."
Siegfried was on hand to offer his direct approval of Zerr's approach. "You're going to be awesome; I'm so glad you're here," he told her, before offering a high-five.