A+ Teacher: Laurie Poe; Gainesville Jr. High School • 7th and 8th grade math
Anyone who has been involved with the Gainesville Junior High in the last decade is probably well acquainted with the positive personality and bright smile of junior high math teacher Laurie Poe. Known for her approachable teaching style and encouraging personality, Poe is well liked by students and teachers alike.
“[She] truly cares about her students and their success as students, as well as people. Math is tough. Not all kids love it, but Laurie approaches it in a way that makes all kids feel like they can do it,” Gainesville principal Ericka Armstrong told the Times. “They want to be successful for her because they know she believes that they can be successful.”
Poe currently teaches traditional math and an advanced pre-algebra class to Gainesville Jr. High students, which means those in seventh and eighth grades.
She lives in Gainesville with her husband Mark, who works for MoDOT, and son Ryan, a junior at Gainesville High School. The couple’s daughter, Ashley, is currently a freshman at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout.
Growing up an Army brat
Although Poe says she’s found a longtime home in Gainesville, her youth wasn’t spent in one place long.
“I was an Army brat. So I grew up for six years in Germany,” she said, adding that she was born in Stuttgart, Germany, when her dad was stationed there. “We lived there for three years when I was a wee little baby; then we moved back [to the States]. I was in kindergarten through second grade for our second time over there.”
Poe said she attended a German school with other American students.
“It was neat to see. We lived in with the German people, so it was a complete immersion,” she said. “It was a German school with two American classrooms, but we played at recess with the German kids. It was all kinds of interesting, because we couldn’t understand them. We knew basic words, and we did a lot of motioning, and we all played together.”
After fourth grade, her family moved back to the United States for the second time.
“And then we were just all over,” she said. “I think I counted it one time, and it was 19 moves by the time I graduated,” she said, adding that her high school graduation was in Ozark.
Poe says she currently holds dual German and American citizenship.
Brief real estate career pushed her to pursued her real passion
After high school, Poe took the first steps toward establishing a career path.
“I really just tried to avoid college right out of school because I was tired of school,” she said. “I knew I liked math. So I got my real estate license.”
“I was 18. I knocked on a lot of doors and finally got a job in Mountain Home [Arkansas]. I sold real estate for three months and then decided it wasn’t for me. I mean, I made money. I sold houses, but that’s when I realized I wasn’t a salesperson. That’s when I knew I really wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
Inspired by several family members who had also pursued a career in education, including an aunt who taught and was an administrator in Las Vegas, Nevada, for 42 years, Poe enrolled in college at Missouri State University.
“When I first got into my teaching degree, I thought maybe I’d do English, but then I quickly realized, no, that’s not for me,” she said.
“Then I thought, ‘You know, I really love math.’ So, I chose to go that direction,” she said.
Poe decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science Degree in middle school education with an emphasis on math and social studies.
“I’ve always loved math, and it seemed like I was always helping my friends with their math work. I started noticing things that were hard for them, and I enjoyed helping them work toward understanding it,” Poe said. “Also, I think I also kind of inherited a love of math from my dad, who is an Army engineer. He’s career military and loves building things and blowing them up. So I think I probably get that love from my dad, because Mom was not a lover of the math.”
Missouri has consistently, and still has, a shortage of math teachers, so Poe’s redirected career path as a math educator was filling a need that is oftentimes unmet in the state.
“When I started that particular degree program, it had just come out. I think there were just three of us enrolled in the middle school portion of the degree. But I knew that was the target age that I enjoyed working with, so I was excited about it.”
As Poe’s work life direction began to take shape, so did her personal life. She met her husband Mark when her grandmother, who lived in Pontiac, set her up on a blind date. The couple celebrated their 24-year anniversary in December.
‘A true team player’
After graduating with her teaching degree in 1997, Poe accepted her first assignment as a fourth grade teacher with the Gainesville School District, and she’s been there ever since.
“There was a brief stint in there, I think seven years, when my kids were born, that I chose to stay home with them. But I was still subbing through that whole time, so basically I’ve been working at Gainesville since 1997,” she said.
Poe says she’s taught a range of grades and subjects ranging from fourth to 11th grade, but she really enjoys working with junior high students.
“Junior high is my niche,” she said. “I’ve been there the last 10 years, and I love it.”
Gainesville’s administrative team members say Poe is a valued member of the faculty within the district.
“She’s a true team player,” Armstong said. “The JH staff is like a family, and she’s a huge part of why it feels that way. Gainesville just wouldn’t be the same without Laurie in the classroom.”
“Mrs. Poe always has a wonderful attitude and a smile on her face. She is willing to put in the extra effort to ensure all students are succeeding in her classes,” superintendent Justin Gilmore added. “Educators like Mrs. Poe support a positive learning environment and school culture for all.”
‘We were just trying to swim’
Poe, like teachers across the world, said that covid-19 turned the education world upside down.
In March 2020, the Gainesville School District, along with others in the county, announced that it would forgo in-person classes for the remainder of the school year.
“There was just a lot of fear in the beginning – fear from the students, fear from the teachers. We just all had to kind of navigate a new area,” Poe said.
After the announcement of the closure, Gainesville educators began working to completely revamp their curriculum from students learning in planned in-person class settings to completing all work in paper packets that parents picked up once a week with a food distribution.
“The whole packet thing was not ideal, but we were just trying to swim,” she said. “We weren’t ready for everyone to have the technology at home at that point. So it was better than nothing, but it was tough, and it was tough on the families too, I know.”
Poe said that although those few months were challenging in terms of schoolwork, it was also a challenging time for teachers because they were unable to see their students.
“We would all get together and do the food distribution for the kids,” she said. “And you’d get to see some of them and say hi, ask if they were doing OK.”
Now, the school district has outfitted all students with the technology to easily transition to a virtual learning format, which it implements in “virtual Fridays” each week when students work from their own homes.
“I think the schools have done a great job at walking us through it all. I’m kind of a germ-a-phobe anyway, so it was tough, but the kids are still kids, and we still need to do what we need to do. We’re just finding different ways to do it,” she said.
A turn to technology
Poe said that the quick push covid made into a more tech-based learning environment was scary at first but very beneficial in the end.
“When I started [teaching], we had one computer per classroom, and it was basically used as a reward,” Poe said, referring to her first fourth grade class nearly 25 years ago. “So I’ve seen the whole span from going to that to every student now has a computer. And at first, I was very hesitant. I was a little ‘old school’ and worried, but honestly I’ve seen such beautiful things… and in math. I’d hate to have to go back to just the textbook.”
Poe says her students are still learning the same building blocks of junior high math that was in the textbooks, but the electronic format has helped them become more engaged. And it has helped her better understand how students are responding to the lessons.
“I can teach them a lesson, and then they can do a live quiz, and they can immediately see, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, or no I don’t,’” Poe said. “And I can also look and see live results. So, if I see half the class did not get what we’re working on, I’ll know we’re going to work some more on that. Or I can see these two over here are completely lost. So then I know I’m going to spend my time with them. It gives you the ability to target kids who need help in real time. It’s immediate. There’s no more, ‘Let me have that paper, and then in a couple days we’ll see if you did it right.’ It really changes the aspect of how they get it, and how I can help them.”
Poe says the math programs her classes use mimic the bright colors and engaging elements of online games, which makes the work more fun than a textbook for a lot of students.
“They’ll get to choose an answer; it’s colored. If they’re right, it congratulates them,” she said. “I’ve seen that they’re more involved now than they were with just a textbook. So I’ve really seen the beauty of it. It’s very different than before, but it’s been good – very good.”
A job of passion
Teaching is “a wonderful job, but it’s a job of passion. You have those days where you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?’ and then you have those days where you say, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing,’” Poe said. “And you definitely have those days that make you want to cry. I’m going to tear up talking about it. I had a kid this week that, when you know what they’re dealing with… and then you think, ‘I’m trying to teach you math when you’re dealing with that.’ That’s tough. You just love them. That’s all you can do: love them and help them through the math.”
She says it’s the ‘lightbulb moments’ that really make teaching worth it.
“When you see that lightbulb go off, and you know you’re some small part of that, that’s exciting,” she said. “And I love to get kids who come in and say, ‘I am not a math person. My mom was not a math person. My dad was not a math person. I am not a math person.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s OK. We can make it work.’ I just love helping those people come out of that fear.”
Poe’s influence has now reached the multi-generational mark as she’s taught children of her former students.
“I’m old enough now that I’m having the kids of the kids that I had early on. Last week a girl came in and said, ‘You know my dad. Don’t you remember?’ I said, ‘Yep, I remember him.’ And I’ve had a few students who have chosen to go into the education field. I had a note a few years back from a student, and she told me that she decided to become a teacher and I was a part of that decision. That humbles you.”
Poe says she’s grown to think of her fellow faculty members and administrators as family. And that school-family helped her through a pretty scary time, she says.
In January 2019, the Poes’ son Ryan, who was freshman at the time, had to undergo open-heart surgery.
“We were up in St. Louis, and we were getting videos from the cafeteria ladies, and from the principal, and from the ball team,” she said. “It was really awesome.
Ryan now has a reconstructed heart valve and is doing great, Poe says.
“But just having that love from these guys, from this school. It is a family,” she said. “I’ve lived in big cities. I’ve gone to big schools, but I’ve never experienced what we have here. It’s really special.”