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This year’s LifeSmarts National Championship event in Los Angeles was a great success! With 33 teams representing states from all over the country, four days of intense competition, and a nail-biting final match-up, the event had a great many highlights and special moments. But one of the most touching scenes was when Bonnie Baker, assistant coach from Missouri, was named 2011 LifeSmarts Coach of the Year.
Her commitment to her students, her heartfelt acceptance speech, and her more than three decades of experience as an educator, are truly inspiring. The LifeSmarts staff are honored to have found such a dedicated and passionate program advocate. Read on and get to know Bonnie:
Bonnie, a part-time teacher from Linn High School in Linn, MO, has been an educator for 32 years, teaching elementary, middle school, and high school and having served as an elementary principal.
How did your involvement with LifeSmarts begin?
I got involved with LifeSmarts four years ago when I started teaching high school gifted and needed some sort of curriculum that would be not only challenging, but interesting as well. It worked out perfectly, my students liked the competitive aspect of the program and the wide range of subjects, some of which they knew, but some of which they had to really study to master.
How’d you guys make it to Nationals?
I’ve been a coach for three years and an assistant coach for one year. Last year was the first year we ever made it to the state finals, so my students were extra determined to do even better this year. The team that made it to Nationals had to overcome several hurdles, due to snow days (the winter here was terrible), taking the placement tests was a challenge and a couple of the students didn’t complete their tests on time and couldn’t compete; it was really kind of sad. But the four that made it worked hard and were delighted to be able to travel to Nationals in Hollywood.
What’s coaching like?
We have a unique situation since some of my kids and I have quite a long history together, some knew me as a teacher and others knew me as a principal. The other coach worked with me when I was the principal, so we know each other quite well too. Just as a side note, I was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008. I was teaching some of these students when I underwent chemo that summer and came back that fall weak, bald, and barely hanging on. These same kids were so supportive of me and encouraged me to just get on with life and not give up or slow down. They were so accepting and happy to see me each week, it helped me in my recovery and my morale. We formed a strong bond that made it possible for me to be not only a teacher, but a friend and supporter.
What’d you think of the National event?
We were so impressed with the whole Nationals experience. There was an impressive list of firsts that happened to these kids, some had the first plane ride, the first subway ride, first city bus ride, first time at the ocean, and first time in California. It was great being with them and experiencing their excitement and joy. They were just in awe of all the great things they saw and did.
What’s it like being named Coach of the Year?
Being named coach of the year is quite a wonderful honor. I was listening to the master of ceremonies talking about the coach of the year at the awards luncheon without really listening closely until he called my name. My mouth just about hit the floor! I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve worked with these students about seven years in one capacity or another, I know them all very well but I still didn’t have a clue that they nominated me. It truly was a highlight of my life. I still smile every time I think about it.
How do you think LifeSmarts affects participants?
I’ve been able to see the early impact. My first group graduated last year, and this year I have two more groups graduating from the program. They bring up topics in their general conversation that tells me that the things they’ve learned are impacting their lives. They talk knowledgeably about finance and the environment so often that it makes me realize that the LifeSmarts knowledge they’ve gained will help them make good life decisions.
LifeSmarts gives the students a real sense of knowing more about their world and enables them to become better citizens. One student remarked that he could understand how LifeSmarts topics would impact his life whereas some of his school subjects wouldn’t be used in his working life. Then they are able to use this knowledge to compete and perhaps win a trip to nationals someplace in the United States. That was a tremendous reward for my students from Middle America and a town of 1,000 people with a school with a population of just 600 in grades k-12.
What’s next for you?
I will not be co-coaching with this group again as I am no longer teaching in their school, but I am teaching gifted classes in another nearby school. Next year, I will be introducing LifeSmarts to a new school. I will be introducing LifeSmarts to a middle school group and if everything works well we will try to continue it into high school in the future.