REED CITY — After 31 years of teaching, Jackie Ringler knows what’s important: the connections she makes with her students.

Ringler, in her 32nd year with Reed City Area Public Schools, teaches first grade at G.T. Norman Elementary. She also taught special education classes and second grade for a few years, but the bulk of her time has been spent in first grade.

“It’s a demanding grade,” she said. “Especially now that the curriculum has changed so much. What we used to teach in first grade 30 years ago is now done in kindergarten.

“The kids have to get the basics, reading writing and math. It’s amazing the amount of growth in this school year.”

At 6 and 7 years old, children also are still learning proper social behaviors, she noted. There’s a lot of learning that takes place in a first-grade classroom — not all of which is on the latest state standardized test.

“You wear so many hats when you’re in the classroom,” she said.  “You’re their teacher, but you’re also a counselor on appropriate and inappropriate behavior and a surrogate parent for this time they’re away from their parents.”

Ringler points to one past student in particular who had to work hard to master the social graces of elementary school.

“Each day was two baby steps forward and then the next day you’d have to start all over again,” she recalled. “But by the end of the year, maybe even by February that year, things began to go in a positive way.

“By the end of the year, when they did their piece about the best thing they learned in first grade, he drew a picture and wrote a sentence: ‘I learned to be good.’ I’ll never forget that.

“You’re there as a coach, helping, but you want them to take ownership of their behavior, and he did.”

While some students are more challenging and take more time than others, Ringler loves the opportunity to connect with each one of them, something she tries to do daily with each of her pupils.

“I just love being around kids,” she said. “The bonds you create with the kids — years down the road, when they’re in high school or middle school, you’ll run into them and they’ll cross three aisles in Meijer to say hi and tell you what they remember about your class. It’s amazing what matters to them in first grade that they take with them six years later.”

While her current students are still making the memories they’ll cherish in the years to come, they know what they like about their teacher right now.

“She’s nice,” said first-grader Maddie Maneke. “She lets us do crafts.”

Added classmate Julia Butler, “And she lets us play games. She lets us read books when we want and she lets us paint stuff, like at Halloween we got to do ghosts and pumpkins and stuff like that.”

Those highlights of first grade, which will become memories later, are part of the overall relationship Ringler builds with her students, said Principal DeAnna Goodman.

“Mrs. Ringler is dedicated teacher that develops positive relationships with colleagues, students, and parents,” Goodman said. “She works collaboratively with staff and serves as a mentor to others. She has a special gift in working with all students to promote academic and social growth, focusing on each individual. Her hard work and dedication to our district is valued and appreciated far more than words can say.”