Don't tell Michelle Gibbar, Rim Country Middle School English teacher, that eighth-graders are the worst age to teach.
"I'm always astounded by people who say that," Gibbar said. "I say that's the best group to teach. They're actually very cooperative."
Gibbar, who was just named Teacher of the Year by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, believes 13- and 14-year-olds are at a pivotal point in their lives.
"There's something about that group that I just love," she said. "They're in between sophisticated and childhood. One day they're sophisticated, the next it's back to teddy bears."
A teacher who wants to make a difference could hardly ask for more.
"I love this age group because you can still mold them," she said. "It's the mom in me coming out.
"At the beginning of the year, they're so immature. But by the time promotion hits, it's a completely different person. It's awesome to watch, and then the next year, I start all over again."
One thing Gibbar tries to instill in her students is an appreciation of the freedoms they have as Americans, and of the people who have sacrificed to guarantee those freedoms. It was, in fact, a Veterans Day project she does each year that caught the attention of the VFW. She introduces the unit with thought-provoking poems about war.
"Each child is responsible for making a set of four postcards that are sent to individual veterans," she said. "It started with the local veterans, but each year it's become a bigger production. People come by and add the names of veterans."
A side benefit is that the unit allows Gibbar's students to make connections with others, especially their elders.
"With the breakdown of the nuclear family, students are really removed from making connections with older people," she said. "And we really don't know our history."
The veterans gain from the exercise too.
"I've had some very moving letters from people," she said. "One I'll never forget came from a gentleman who said, ‘In the 22 years after serving my country, you are the first person ever, anywhere, who said thank you.'"
Gibbar believes that until very recently, young people lacked real-world challenges.
"I was fortunate to grow up in the timeframe I did because there were so many social issues going on we had to take a stand for or against, but I became very concerned because for the last 20 years, life became too easy," she said. "The concept of a hardship was, ‘My Sega broke.' They didn't have anything to fight for."
But 9/11 changed everything, she said.
"Now there's issues that have come back in," she said. "You really have to take stock of who you are, what you believe and where you're going with your life."
A 1998 graduate of the University of Arizona, Gibbar has been teaching for five years.
She had already decided Payson would be her home one day.
"I grew up in Waterloo, Illinois, but I moved to Arizona after one too many snowstorms. My parents had already moved out here. I actually first saw Payson on a car trip through Arizona in 1984. This was my dream town."
When she was hired to fill a vacancy at RCMS, that dream came true.
"I love teaching in a small town," she said. "It's really nice going out and somebody knows you -- to say hi to somebody and have them get so high because they place you on a pedestal."
She is also enthusiastic about her RCMS colleagues and the team concept around which the school is organized.
"I love that we work in teams," she said. "That philosophy is the best thing that can happen for a child at this age. Instead of just me seeing a student, we can come together as four core teachers and we can help them and that's important."
"Our world has changed vastly from when I went to school," she said. "Kids are up against a lot more problems, and we can really intervene and really pay attention to the individual needs of each student."
Asked to recount a lighter moment or two from her classroom, she mentioned the student who does his Hunchback of Notre Dame routine whenever she asks him to do something, and another who, instead of bringing her the traditional apple, gave her the prize cucumber out of his garden.
"At first, I was taken aback, but then somebody pointed out how much that prize cucumber meant to him," she said. "Then I was honored."
Another gift she prizes is the flag the VFW gave her during the ceremony honoring her as its Teacher of the Year.
"I can't express how much that means to have my own American flag because even though people may disagree with what we're doing, that flag represents the country we're allowed to express those disagreements with," she said. "If you weren't standing on American soil, you wouldn't have that luxury."
Gibbar emphasizes that while she never set out to be teacher of the year, she does consider herself a visionary.
"That's the name of our team (of teachers) at RCMS," she said. "That's the whole impetus behind our team: we want to expose the children to the bigger picture and to help them make connections.
"Besides, if I said I was a romantic, someone would think I'm in love with Valentines and flowers; if I said I was a dreamer, you'd think I was frittering away my time.
"I just love going to work. I enjoy what I'm doing, and I hope my students gain something and take it with them."
Name: Michelle Sue Gibbar
Occupation: Educator, English
Employer: Payson Unified School District
Birthplace: St. Louis, Mo.
Family: Two children -- Sarah, 17, and Sebastien, 14. I am the third in a family of eight children.
Personal motto: "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Inspiration: Comes from my children and my colleagues -- the best around.
Greatest feat: Following a divorce, I returned to and completed university course work while singlehandedly raising my children.
Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Landscaping, fabric painting, touring Arizona.
Three words that describe me best: Determined, sensitive, caring.
I don't want to brag, but ... I successfully raised my children and completed my education at the University of Arizona as a single mother.
Person in history I'd most like to meet: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Abraham Lincoln.
Luxury defined: Pursuing a Ph.D. in English without concern for financial obligations.
Dream vacation spot: British Virgin Islands, Pacific West Coast
Why Payson? I chose Payson as my home because I want my children to experience small community living.