Teachers Were Students Once


“And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach,” wrote Chaucer of the Oxford Cleric in his prologue to Canterbury Tales. Perhaps the same could be said of eight teachers on the staff of Gibraltar Area Schools, former students who enjoyed their educational experience at Fish Creek to the extent that they chose to return to those hallowed halls of learning as teachers.

Pictured from left, Becky LeRoy, Bridget Gobel Schopf, Devin Thomas, Kaija Johnson, Karen Krause, Justin Burress, Michelle Daubner and Roberta Champeau.

While the school has always had alumni on the staff, this year’s group might be a record number:  Roberta Champeau, class of 1970; Bridget Gobel Schopf and Karen Krause, 1983; Becky Leroy Higginbotham, 1986; Michelle Daubner, 1994; Kaija Johnson, 2000; Justin Burress, 2004; and Devin Thomas, 2008.

Roberta Champeau, media specialist at Gibraltar, was first hired as a kindergarten aide in 1985 after serving as a substitute teacher. Her media work began as an elementary library aide in 1990, then as a technology aide in 1995, and finally in 2000, her present position.

Some of her best memories as a student at Gibraltar involved extracurricular activities (student council, class officer, president of newspaper and yearbook, Future Homemakers of America, National Honor Society, French Club, drama, track, field hockey, choir and band) and the friends she made.

Her two children attended Gibraltar as well. “I wasn’t their classroom teacher because of the nature of my job,” she said, “but I was always there if they needed me, and we could share rides to and from school.”

“I think the experience as a student at Gibraltar made me a better teacher here because I knew the families and the communities,” she continued. “I have the trust of the families that I have known for so long.”

Young Bridget Gobel enjoyed having the opportunity to be involved in so many activities at Gibraltar and always felt encouraged by her teachers and family. “I loved cheering for both football and basketball games,” she said, “spending Friday after school on the floor of the lobby making signs. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on the stage in the old gym playing ‘Stars and Stripes’ on the piccolo.”

As a girl she had always planned to live in the community where she was raised; in 1989 she was hired, and now as Mrs. Schopf she works as a reading specialist.

“Attending a small school has its perks as well as its challenges,” she said. Because a relatively small group of students has spent their lives together, “if you don’t fit that mold, making friends can be difficult.” The experience “has given me empathy for those students who don’t feel comfortable” socially.

As a teacher she found herself in a classroom where she had had a bad experience as a sixth grader. While she was cleaning out a closet in the room she discovered mementoes of her former classmates and “realized that the classroom doesn’t belong to just the teacher, but to the students along with the teacher who then become a community of learners.”

One of her children graduated from Gibraltar, and another is a senior this year.

“When I was a senior and we were asked what we thought we would be doing in 10 years, I said ‘I want to be a kindergarten teacher just like Mrs. Erickson’,” Karen Krause said. “She was my kindergarten teacher and I thank her for inspiring me.”

In 1997 that dream became a reality, as Krause was hired to teach kindergarten at Gibraltar. As time passed, her triplets, now in fourth grade, were in her class. “They called me Ms. Krause during the school day. It was a great experience being their teacher!”

One of Krause’s favorite memories “was when I attended the Sister Bay Elementary and we would bring our sleds.”

Teaching at her former school “was awkward on the first day of in-service, seeing your old teachers, now your co-workers.” She never knew whether to call them by their first name or respectfully by their last. But “it only took a few weeks for me to get used to my new role as a teacher.”

Krause believes she is a better teacher at Gibraltar. “I have a vested interest in the school because I was a student.”

Becky Leroy not only returned to her alma mater to teach, but she married classmate Tim Higginbotham. She was hired in 1994 and now is in her 18th year of teaching second grade.

“At that time many of my former high school teachers were still teaching and I admit to being very embarrassed by how I acted as a high school student,” she said. “Fortunately those teachers all welcomed me back and told me how proud they were of me.”

Her best memories are of attending the old Baileys Harbor Elementary School, “sledding down the steep hill in back, saying the pledge around the flagpole, and following the maze-like hallway through the basement to get to the fourth grade classroom.”

Higginbotham believes her experience as a student makes her a better teacher because of “strong ties to and understanding of the community.” She knows “the small town mentality, our seasonal tourist industry, and the dedication many parents have to our school.”

Her daughter graduated from Gibraltar in 2011, and her son is a senior this year. “I had Sam in my second grade class,” she said. “It was an awesome experience.”

After teaching at a private school in Green Bay, Michelle Daubner returned as a substitute teacher, supplementing her income by working at the Sister Bay Bowl.

“I always wanted to come back home to live and work,” she said. Her dream came true when she was hired full-time in 2005, and now is in her fifth year teaching fifth grade.

She was attracted to the school not only by her own memories of beginning at the Sister Bay Elementary and moving to Gibraltar in fourth grade, learning with the same group of kids from fourth grade through twelfth, serving as a cheerleader and student council representative, but also from the conviction that “Gibraltar is an exceptional school, small class sizes, dedicated staff, and a high level of academics.

“You have to leave for a while and come back to truly appreciate what a unique and beautiful place Door County is,” she added.

“It’s hard to walk into a new school and start from scratch,” she continued. “I believe that knowing many of the staff members (some my former teachers), students and parents, has helped me to be a better teacher. I also know the community and there are so many educational resources available to us.”

Kaija Johnson was less certain that she wanted to return to Door County to live and teach. “I was volunteering in the Dominican Republic,” she explained, “but afraid that my initial Wisconsin teaching license would expire. Gibraltar contacted me while I was overseas and encouraged me to apply for a K-12 English as Second Language position.” She was hired in 2008, and presently teaches fifth grade.

“Honestly it was more about using my license than choosing Gibraltar,” she said. While she was excited about the job, she “wasn’t quite ready to move back to Door County. Today I finally appreciate living and working here.”

Johnson was involved in “everything and anything” in high school, but “the best was managing the boys baseball team” where “I learned more about boys on the away bus rides and in the dugout than anywhere else!”

Because she knows from her experience as a student “what types of activities, programs and artist residencies were most life changing to us as students,” she is today “the number one advocate for similar programs.”

But one disadvantage to being a former student: “I feel like I’ve never left, as if I’m waiting for life to start. I have to remind myself that this is life!” 

Past Gibraltar graduate Justin Burress will begin his first year at the school teaching sixth grade, happy to be “close to family and extended family,” to be in “a great area to live,” and to work in “a great school district.

“I liked knowing all of my teachers and knowing that they cared about each and everyone of us,” he said. “I didn’t really get in trouble that much when I was in school,” he added, “but just the fact that some of my now co-workers have disciplined me in the past is a little embarrassing!”

Burress comes to Gibraltar after teaching fourth grade in Lancaster, Wis., moving from one corner of the state to the other. He also coached varsity boys basketball, drawing upon his experience as a high school athlete playing basketball as well as soccer, football, baseball and golf.

“I felt very prepared for college and the real world after leaving Gibraltar,” Burress said, “and I am excited to help younger generations prepare for their future.”

He returns to the peninsula with his wife and a newborn that might one day be his student.

“Ever since I decided to go into teaching,” Devin Thomas said, “I wanted to teach third grade at Gibraltar and now that is a reality.” He has the unique experience not only of returning to his old school, but of being a colleague of his mother, Lizbeth Thomas.

“I love Door County and knew I wanted to spend my adult years where I spent my childhood,” he said. “Gibraltar is a great school that excels in academics, athletics and the arts,” and these are his passions.

Thomas was a three-season athlete (soccer, basketball and track) as well as an actor, a singer and student council member. One of his best memories was of setting two school records representing Gibraltar at the state track and field meet.

But his successes were also accompanied by occasional adolescent embarrassment, such as the time he couldn’t find his passport on a school trip to Spain and had to visit the American Embassy.

Thomas believes he has an understanding for Gibraltar students, the community they grew up in, and the opportunities that await them. “I feel this will create a special connection that will not only help me be the best teacher that I can be,” he said, “but also the best role model that I can be.”

Perhaps Kaija Johnson’s thoughts echo those of her colleagues when she concludes, “Thanks to our giving community, teaching at Gibraltar is still pleasurable even as we witness other schools our size being hit by the political storms tearing through Wisconsin.”

Gladly did they learn, these past students at Gibraltar, and now they gladly teach.