May 3, 2012

She helped make school ‘cool’ for 23 years

Story and photo by Beth Bellizzi
Special to the Scout
Lucca Vitale, 6, receives praise from his kindergarten teacher, Joy Mims. “Good job with your last name! I want to see you write your first name, too.”

Few people can claim that their profession has a direct impact on the next generation. Joy Mims is one of these fortunate individuals. “I’m setting the seed for what the next 12 years of a child’s life is going to be like,” said Mims.

On May 24, the last day of the year for Fort Huachuca Accommodation Schools, Mims will nurture her seeds one final time. She will retire the following day from Col. Johnston Elementary School after a teaching career that has spanned 23 years.

During more than two decades of teaching primarily kindergarten students, Mims’ passion for education has never waned. She has maintained a commitment to “providing that spark for them … to doing something throughout the year so they say, ‘School is a cool place to be. I want to be there!’” she said.

In 1980, Mims began to build career experience as a volunteer in the classrooms of her three children. However, as a military spouse at the time, achieving a teaching degree took perseverance due to constant moves. She earned credits at four colleges before she finally obtained her bachelor’s degree. With a scholarship from the Fort Huachuca Community Spouses’ Club to help pay for her tuition, she finally received her degree from the University of Arizona in December 1989. Two months later she was hired as a first-grade teacher at Colonel Johnston Elementary School.

Mims recalled there were some “pretty overwhelming” days during her first year of teaching. Yet, she would face a more daunting challenge four years later — a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Sierra Brown, 6, is challenged by her kindergarten teacher Joy Mims to “find something that ryhmes with square.” After she selects a bear, Mims excitedly responds, “Yes!”

Demonstrating incredible fortitude, Mims continued teaching through her chemotherapy treatments. She was one credit away from earning her master’s degree when diagnosed. She eventually completed the credit a few years later.

Avoiding the classroom during her medical crisis was not something Mims considered.

“I’ve had some pretty rough times during the past 22 years, and being with the children and being in the classroom were my rescue place, it was my sanctuary to me. … ’Cause that’s just what I love.”

She exhibits that affection every day. While she does have a desk, she is more likely found in the audience of an impromptu student puppet show, on the floor solving a puzzle with a student or pulling a chair next to a student to ask, “What’s up buttercup?” as she reviews a handwriting exercise.

Experience has taught Mims that “children are on an education path, but education itself it doesn’t follow a path; it’s kind of on a pendulum. It swings to this trend and then it slowly ends up trending the other way.”

For example, in 2011, the Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District was awarded a $1.2 million Department of Defense Education Activity Grant. It is designed to enhance STEM (Science, Technology, Math, Engineering) instruction. As part of the grant, Mims and her kindergarten colleagues were tasked with creating hands-on science lessons. “The young teachers say to me, “You already do this stuff, Joy!” Yes, because we are swinging back to this type of thing. It’s exploration, it’s discovery … education just rocks back and forth.”

Despite the changing course of education, those around her appreciate that Mims has helped guide over two decades of students on a steady path.

Col. Johnston Elementary School Principal Dr. Nancy Nicholson stated, “I think what makes Joy Mims’ career unique is her single-minded persistence that triumphed through bringing up a mobile military family, surviving breast cancer, and putting herself through college. That kind of dedicated determination trail blazes a path for future generations of educators.”

After 23 years, it will be tough to turn off the classroom lights one final time. “I will miss the children,” she said. Noting that “volunteering is important,” Mims hopes to return to Johnston Elementary School as a volunteer and remain in the education community in some capacity.

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