Amy Dower and Nancy Koza

Phelps Luck Elementary School teachers Amy Dower, left, and Nancy Koza have taught at the Columbia school for more than 36 years. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing / August 20, 2013)

Ken Ulman, county executive and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, is looking to the present and the future a lot these days. But as a new school year approaches, the Columbia-born and raised Ulman was more than happy to talk about the two teachers who taught him in first and second grade.

"I remember them very fondly," Ulman said about Phelps Luck Elementary School teachers Amy Dower and Nancy Koza. "I had a great education in the Howard County public schools, primarily because I had great teachers. And they certainly were at the top of the list."

Ulman still returns to Koza's classroom regularly to read to her students, sometimes with one of his two young daughters.

"I tell the first-graders that they have the best first-grade teacher anywhere," he said

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School opens next week for 52,000 Howard County students, marking the start of a new year with plenty of new teachers, new subjects and new students. At Phelps Luck Elementary in Columbia, it also means more of the same — another year that veteran teachers Dower and Koza will be teaching first grade at the same school, pretty much side by side in the same or adjoining classrooms.

For the past 36 years, the two Columbia women have taught untold thousands of Phelps Luck students, worked for nearly a dozen different principals, and watched the teaching staff grow from about 16 to about 80.

And through it all, the two women have remained fast friends, leaning on each other for support and companionship, and rejecting any offers to change schools or jobs. 

"We both had multiple opportunities to go to other schools or to apply for different positions with the county," Koza said. "But I feel a real commitment to this building, to the building and the community.

"I enjoy the staff … the children are delightful to work with, and the parents have always provided a great deal of support."

The constantly changing students, staff and curriculum, not to mention dizzying technological changes, have helped them avoid getting in a rut, she said.

"We don't consider teaching to be the same thing we did last year," Koza said. "We're looking always for what else can we do and try."

Added Dower: "Teaching is never stagnant. The population is changing each year.  We've worked with 10 or 11 administrations. The curriculum is always evolving. … Every year is new."

Teammates for years

Koza, 67, started at Phelps Luck Elementary in the fall of 1976. A native of Massachusetts, she moved to the area after eight years of teaching in New Hampshire, Montana and California, when her husband, now deceased, got a job here.

Dower, 57, started the following fall, and it was her first teaching job. She was raised in a close-knit family in western Pennsylvania, and when two of her sisters moved to Maryland, she decided to follow them.

Both women immediately fell in love with Columbia and still live there. And for both, that love affair soon extended to the local elementary school and the job of teaching young children.

"You need only see the face of a 6-year-old when the light goes on," Dower said.  "Or reading a good story and you have 20 children in front of you that are totally captivated. It's just something that you can't describe.

"You own that moment. You're creating magic.

"There are certainly days when you carry home those bags full of things that you still need to do when you get home. It isn't all positive moments, but there are a lot of great moments."

Both also are grateful they've been able to share those moments with each other.