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
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.
"When Frank (her husband) and I moved here, we didn't have any family," Koza recalled. "So it was wonderful because I had somebody here to talk with and get to know and enjoy a great deal. And it's continued over the years."
"I feel fortunate Nancy has been a teammate all these years," Dower added. "We have similar philosophies about teaching and education and children, and we both have a desire to keep things fresh. … That makes coming to work each day fun as well."
For their first 35 years together, the two teachers shared a pod, which meant they were essentially in the same classroom. Major renovations at the school in the spring, however, meant the two were moved to their own classrooms, apart from each other.
"I had separation anxiety," Dower said.
This fall, with the renovations nearly complete, the two will have separate classrooms — but they are adjoining classrooms, much to their mutual relief.
Not surprisingly after all those years in the same school, both Dower and Koza have had students who turned out to be children of former students. Also not surprisingly, both constantly are running into former students. They see them in the grocery store, in the mall — even, at times, in their own homes.
Just this summer, Dower had a repairman in her home and, after he looked at her quizzically and asked if she was a teacher, she realized he was a former student. When he was done, he showed her a photograph of his own child.
"That's the fun part of being in this field for a long time," she said.
Keeping students engaged
Their fellow teachers at Phelps Luck seem almost in awe of the two women, praising their teaching skills, ability to relate to the students and openness to change.
"They're so good with the students," said Tammy Hart, a paraeducator at Phelps Luck. "I don't know how, but they always keep them engaged. … They have great command of their classes, and they never raise their voices."
Teacher Isaac Clark, in his third year at Phelps Luck, said both women helped him adapt to teaching in Howard County after eight years in the Baltimore school system.
"If I had any questions, their doors were always open," he said.
And, while both have been teaching for nearly four decades, Clark noted, he has been "very impressed with how they integrate technology into their classrooms. … They've both been mentors for me."
Present and past principals are equally impressed.
"They're both so incredibly talented and have had such a profound impact on our school," said Principal Sean Martin.
Part of their value is their deep knowledge of the school and the community, he said, but they also "are continually being proactive in terms of seeking out new ideas to deliver instruction and curriculum."
Added Martin, who began his career as a teacher at Phelps Luck 17 years ago: "I always say I learned more being on a committee with Nancy and Amy than I did in any classroom. They're great role models, for us and for our students."
Former Phelps Luck Principal Pamela Akers, who is on assignment in the school system's Human Resources Office, noted that teachers who stay in the same job at the same school can often "get stuck." But Dower and Koza, she said, avoid that because they're "always open to trying new things — and actually looking for new ways to improve their teaching.
"Howard County is lucky to have them," she added. "And Phelps Luck is lucky to have had them for so long."
Asked how much longer they expect to keep teaching, both Dower and Koza said they'd know when it's time to retire.
And, they agree, that time has not yet arrived.
"Doesn't everybody at a certain age start to think about retirement?" Dower said. "It's the natural progression. And I think with any job you know when the time has come.