Ms. Monday leaned over the sixth-grader’s shoulder, softly explaining again and again that he was smart enough to earn A’s in junior high, not the B’s and C’s he was taking home.

This wasn’t the first time Ms. Monday had encouraged the student, who even at this early age was beginning to earn a reputation as someone who didn’t care about learning.

In fact, the sixth-grader was even beginning to question his own ability.

But this time, as Ms. Monday whispered her encouragement, Mike Coston finally believed in Ms. Monday, and in himself.

And this time, he began to learn.

“She helped me see that I was worth a lot more than I thought I was,” Coston says.

More than 35 years later, Coston recalls that moment as if it happened yesterday. Ms. Monday started Coston on the road to accomplishment and education, and it’s a road he has come to enjoy.

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees under his belt, and work in progress on a doctorate, Coston serves as president of the Northeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

But he holds a single sixth-grade teacher responsible for making an astounding change in his attitude, which led to a dramatic change in his life.

“She gave me the confidence to know that I can go and do anything I wanted to do,” Coston says.

Learning From The Best

Good teachers are the foundation of our society, the people who steer our children away from the streets and into college and the workplace.

We give them custody of society’s young minds, and we charge them with molding tomorrow’s leaders.

And more often than not, despite notoriously low pay and difficult working conditions, our teachers succeed in pointing young minds and spirits in the right direction.

“I kind of think some of my teachers knew they had an impact on my life because I went back and saw them,” says neighborhood firefighter Lorenzo Beachum.

“But I never told them how much of an impact they made on my life.”

This month’s profile of three outstanding neighborhood teachers tells that story.

Keeping Things Light

Mary Jane Gilliam has found herself staring at four walls every school day for the past 30 years, but she isn’t even close to being bored.

“I am blessed,” says Gilliam, a blue-eyed fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Highlander School, 9120 Plano.

“I’ve never dreaded one day of going to work.”

Students’ faces and moods change constantly, she says, and their spirited presence keeps Gilliam on her toes all day long.

Gilliam became a language arts and French teacher at Highlander through a twist of a fate. As she enrolled her children in Highlander, she mentioned to school officials that she spoke French.

At the time, school co-owner Betty Woodring was searching for a French teacher. When she heard about Gilliam’s foreign language skill, she picked up the telephone.

“I walked into the classroom, and I fell in love,” Gilliam says.

Gilliam says she works hard to keep an upbeat, fun atmosphere in her classroom so that students are eager to learn every day.

For example, she whips her students into a clapping frenzy while they sing intransitive verb rules out loud, and she teaches a history lesson to the throbbing, catchy rhythm of a rap song so students will memorize history facts to a beat she knows they won’t forget.

Gilliam says her students strive for good grades and treat her with respect. And she makes a point of respecting her students – never talking down to them. That attitude seems to rub students the right way, she says.

“I want my students to walk out of my classroom every day feeling better about themselves than when they walked into it,” Gilliam says.

“The more you expect of young people, the more they will deliver,” she says.

Gilliam says she walks into her classroom daily with a smiling face. In return, she sees 20 smiling faces hanging on every word she says.

“If I were talking to a first-year teacher, I’d tell them to respect, listen to and watch their students’ faces, and smile and act as if what their students say is incredibly important to you.

“And teach students that there is no schedule that is so important that you can’t stop and learn something new.”

One of the Kids

“Mrs. Grinsfelder, do you, like, make these stories up to go with what your teaching?”

Lisa Grinsfelder is a real kick in the pants – at least, that’s what this student thought when he raised his hand in the middle of a biology lesson.

Grinsfelder holds students’ attention while discussing such dry topics as nuclei or amoebas by illustratively telling stories related to the subject matter, Grinsfelder says.

She is modest about her popularity among the students and staff at Forest Meadow Junior High. She attributes her popularity to her knack for telling stories and remembering students’ names.

“I know virtually every kids’ name by the second or third day of class,” says Grinsfelder, who stands in front of 30 students in five different periods every day.

Students are dumbfounded when their new teacher calls on them by name on the second day of class, Grinsfelder says.

“Oh, my god, she knows my name!” she mimics.

Grinsfelder has been teaching seventh-grade biology for the past 22 years at Forest Meadow, and in all of those years, she can’t remember sending a student to the office for misbehaving in her classroom, she says.

“I really love what I’m doing. I’ve told a lot of young teachers in our building that if you don’t really like this, please don’t do this,” she says.

“I think my students see that in me – I really do like being a teacher.”

Grinsfelder makes it a point to send out positive vibes to her students rather than negative ones, she says.

For example, during the first week of classes, she hands out an instruction manual for her class, and instead of listing 50 things students can’t do, she lists four things they can do.

Students can be seated when the bell rings, they can have their materials ready, they can keep their brushes and make-up in the bathrooms and they can be polite and courteous to each other, visitors, and Mrs. Grinsfelder.

From the beginning, Grinsfelder charges her students up about future classroom activities and tells them how well they are going to do in her class, she says.

“If you go into the classroom and tell them how smart they are, and how much fun class is going to be, then they have that mind set,” she says.

A Challenge For the Mind

Loucia Mavrokordatos, the advanced placement calculus teacher at Lake Highlands High School, has earned a reputation as the school’s toughest teacher.

Yet the toughest teacher also is a student favorite.

Last school year, Mavrokordatos’ students nominated her for the National PTA Phoebe Apperson Hearst Outstanding Educator award. She wound up as one of three honorable mention winners selected from entries supplied by PTAs throughout the country.

During seven of the past eight years, 100 percent of Mavrokordatos’ students have passed the advanced placement calculus test, earning the students two semesters worth of calculus college credit.

Surprisingly, her classroom isn’t filled with students nervously pulling their hair out while the teacher drills them with math questions.

“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere,” she says of her classroom. “But on the other hand, a lot of learning takes place that way.”

Mavrokordatos encourages students to speak freely about subject matter in the classroom rather than raise their hands when they want to speak. She also doesn’t check her students’ homework every day – she leaves it entirely in the students’ hands, she says.

“I’m trying to impress on them that they have to learn for themselves and not anybody else.”

It was Mavrokordatos’ childhood dream to become a math teacher. She is originally from Greece and came to the U.S. with her husband in 1977 to attend college in Kentucky, not knowing a word of English.

She overcame the language barrier and became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

“When I first started teaching, it just came naturally to me,” she says. “Maybe it’s because English is my second language. I always talk in plain language.”

According to Richard Williams, a math professor at Southern Methodist University whose sons took her class, Mavrokordatos does more than speak in simple language.

“She is very competent and very demanding,” Williams says. “She’s harder than most college professors.”

When one of his sons finished his first Calculus III test at SMU, he told his father that he finished within the first 15 minutes of the hour given for the test and that, “compared to one of Mrs. Lucy’s tests, that was a piece of cake,” Williams says.

“I’m very demanding,” Mavrokordatos says. “But I’m also friends with my students. They see me as a friend, but they respect me as a teacher.”

Mavrokordatos’ husband, Pete, is a professor of economics at Tarrant County Jr. College, and the couple has a daughter, Voula, 8, and a son, Kyriacos, 14.

Mavrokordatos, who has been at LHHS since 1986, teaches honors calculus and pre-calculus (an elective class for students).

“I get the best students in the whole school,” she says. “It’s difficult, but the students make it easy. They take this class because they want to.

“But if you don’t have the parents’ support, you can try until you die, and it’s not going to happen,” she says.

Mavrokordatos says she has no plans to quit teaching, a statement that pleases many students and parents.

“She is a real fun person,” Williams says.

“She’s a little, tiny lady, but she comes into the classroom breathing fire – and she gets them to learn.”