When a horse showed up recently in the Frontier Elementary School parking lot, Cindy Chovich's fourth-graders left their classroom for yet another adventure in learning.
For Chovich, one of five finalists for the Arizona Educational Foundation's Teacher of the Year Award, a horse is just another way to make education fun.
"I always try to remember they're kids first and students second," she said. "Then I do whatever it takes to make it enjoyable for them and interesting and challenging."
Chovich arranged for the visit by the horse as part of a unit that includes a book about Charlotte Parkhurst, an accomplished rider and stagecoach driver; the animal kingdom; and non-standard measurements like the "hands" measurement often used with horses.
Chovich's classroom is anything but typical. Walk in on any given day and you're likely to find her students anywhere but at their desks.
"My classroom caters a bit to the child inside each of my students," she explained. "I have never quite understood why a student must sit at her desk to do work. I allow my students to get down on the ground if they choose. This means you'll most likely find me down there too because that's where the learning is taking place."
When people ask Chovich why she chose teaching as a profession, she often jokes that it's because the circus never called her.
"I wear bright colors, silly shirts, and tennis shoes almost every day, and I feel it makes me more approachable to my students," she said. "My goal is to bond with my students beyond the traditional realms of teaching. These may seem like simple things, but in the eyes of a child it means learning is and can be fun."
Chovich will find out at a luncheon in the Valley on Wednesday (Nov. 12) if she's won Teacher of the Year.
From the applications received from throughout Arizona, 10 semi-finalists were selected. In late September the semi-finalists went through a grueling interview process that cut the list to five.
"We faced a panel of 12 people who represented companies like Wells Fargo, Arizona Public Service and The Arizona Republic," she recalled. "Not only were we questioned, but we had to make an impromptu speech and show a video we had made of ourselves."
As one of the five finalists, Chovich is now considered an Ambassador for Excellence. She will travel the state next year making presentations to parents, school districts and civic groups.
She also has received a total of $6,000 and other prizes.
"The 10 semi-finalists each won $1,000 and a field trip to the Challenger Space Center in Phoenix," she said. "Now being one of top five I won $5,000 and a laptop computer, and my students get to do a simulated mission at the Challenger Space Center. That's worth $700."
The Arizona Teacher of the Year wins an additional $20,000, a smartboard, and an all-expenses-paid trip to the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. The individual state winners also get to meet the president and compete for national Teacher of the Year.
The Wednesday luncheon will feature videos of each of the five finalists in action.
"They sent a film crew here on Oct. 23, and they followed me for about an hour," Chovich said. The other four finalists are from Peoria, Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson.
Chovich, who has been teaching for 16 years, began her career in San Diego. She came to Payson to raise her family.
She taught first at Julia Randall Elementary School, but has been at FES since it opened eight years ago. She also teaches education courses at both Gila Community College and the Payson satellite office of Northern Arizona University.
FES Principal Gail Gorry, who originally nominated Chovich for the honor, says she brings together all the assets that make an outstanding teacher.
"She's a very caring teacher and a very creative teacher, and she knows how to discipline," Gorry said. "She has that great balance.
"She has high expectations for her class -- both behavior and academic -- and they come through."
Not surprisingly, Chovich's students were the first to find out about her selection as a finalist.
"I told my kids even before I told (Payson Unified School District Superintendent) Herb Weissenfels," she said. "They're excited. In fact, they said they had to get the first phone call if I win."
That's just the connection she works to make.
"The worst thing that could ever happen to me in my teaching career is for my students not to remember me," she said. "I want to be that one teacher they all remember.
"More than that, though, I want to be the one teacher they can always turn to for help and guidance no matter how old they are. Each student has my phone number and knows that she can call me anytime for anything."