The best teachers in the Yampa Valley

In an industry rife with challenges, those who thrive are extra special

A student walks toward the entrance of Strawberry Park Elementary School in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 23, 2022. The three best teachers in the 2022 Best of the Boat all hail from Strawberry Park.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Steamboat’s teachers have been through a lot in the last two years. They had to figure out how to
teach the littlest learners from a computer screen on the fly, while many adults still can’t get a
handle on the mute button.

They tried to avoid spreading COVID-19 in the classroom, while creating a community students had missed so dearly when stuck at home. They’ve waged through debates over masks, staff shortages in schools and steep inflation costs at home.

Despite the challenges, the Steamboat Springs School District ranked in the top 10 in the state last school year. District administration and the school board say a lot of that success is owed to its educators.

It also means voters had lots of great options as they considered who was Best School Teacher in the 2022 Boat of the Boat competition. Even with dozens of awesome educators, the voters’ top-three teachers all come from Strawberry Park Elementary.

“I know our teachers are amazing and I gloat about them all the time, but it’s nice for them to get those
accolades from outside of here,” said Eron Haubert, Principal at Strawberry Park. “I see what they do every day and I’m always in awe.”

Carrie Abalos – Fourth Grade

Carrie Abalos moved to Steamboat Springs from Texas when she was 18 years old with plans to attend Colorado Mountain College. Like many, she didn’t think it was for life.

Her dad had brought her to Steamboat a few years prior — “He fell in love with Steamboat and wanted his children to see it,” she said. Abalos found Steamboat’s snow enchanting, the people welcoming.

Carrie Abalos, a fourth-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary sits next to an electric fireplace that her students meet around each day.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“I fell in love with the city. I met my husband … built a family,” Abalos said. “I love it.”

Five years ago, she was offered a student teaching position for fifth grade in the Steamboat Springs School District. At the end of the year, she got an offer to stay. Her first year as a fourth grade teacher was 2019.

“You’re trying to figure out how to just coordinate life and teaching,” Abalos said of her first year teaching. “Then you get hit with a pandemic and it’s like a whirlwind and you have to put your entire life, your entire thinking into your classroom setting.”

The transition was tough. It wasn’t hybrid learning, it was all online. She wouldn’t see those students again that school year.

“I feel as though my first year I didn’t really get closure with my kiddos,” she said.

Abalos said she feels relationships — with students, with parents, with other teachers — are incredibly important to teaching. Students need someone who is on their side, who will listen. 

The pandemic changed the way she teaches.

“It really opened my eyes to be a little bit more understanding of where students are coming from,” Abalos said.

Now back in the classroom, Abalos’ favorite part of the day is when her students gather around an electric fireplace in her classroom — “an open space for kids to share.”

They answer prompts like what do they think makes a good friend, share their feelings on that particular morning and get a chance to learn more about their classmates. Abalos said these seemingly innocuous talks make her a better teacher.

“I want them to feel connected and open with me and understand this is a classroom community and that we all help one another,” Abalos said. “I think that’s what makes me a good teacher, because I listen.”

Heidi Hamric – Fourth Grade

Heidi Hamric has taught overseas and in the old mountains of West Virginia, but Steamboat Springs was always on the bucket list for her family.

“I remember visiting here and thinking that this was such a family-centered, kid-centered community,” said Hamric, whose oldest child graduated from Steamboat Springs High School last spring.

Teacher Heidi Hamric, left, student Eden Cobb and Principal Eron Haubert pose for a photo on the first day of school at Strawberry Park Elementary on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

She has been teaching fourth grade in Steamboat for six years now, a grade she says is a “sweet spot” where students are just starting to discover the world. That world got a lot smaller in 2020, an experience Hamric described as “like running face first into a wall.”

“Kids love to learn in social groups and think with partners and in teams and they push each other,” she said. “We lost that positive social experience that kids get from each other.”

Since returning to the classroom, Hamric said she has put an emphasis on active learning experiences. She talks about being an active listener, and listening with your whole body.

Her favorite activity with students is a service learning project students do in fourth grade. They put on a cross country ski-athon to raise money to offer micro-loans to projects around the world. The loans have supported building toilets in Africa, artists and fishing cooperatives in the Philippines.

They learn about setting goals, persuasive writing and it incorporates the state’s economic standards into the project. It also reminds them how big the world really is.

“Our community is so generous here, and the kids’ eyes in fourth grade are just opening toward the world,” Hamric said. “It’s a project with an authentic purpose. I think that’s where kids get really excited. There’s something real.”

Mark Simmons – First Grade

Mark Simmons is slowly making his way to teaching seniors in high school. He has taught 4-year-olds for four years, 5-year-olds for five years, and is now in his third year teaching 6-year-olds.

“I’m just slowly graduating — it’ll take me forever,” Simmons said with a chuckle.

Mark Simmons, a first-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary, stands in front of the class calendar. During the pandemic, Simmons positioned classroom symbols like the calendar around him and enlisted his dog as a classroom helper to help ease the transition for students.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Simmons likes teaching first graders because they are still filled with wonder when they come to school everyday.

“That genuine motivation of just getting excited to see their friends and to have some story from the weekend that means everything to them that they have to just gush to you,” Simmons said.

The shift to virtual learning was tough on his first graders, who had never used a Chromebook before the machine became their daily classroom. Parents were all looking for something different from him. Some wanted him to entertain their children all day long, and others struggled to get students logged on in the morning.

He transformed his little apartment into a classroom and enlisted his dog as the class’ special helper. He played visual games that could double as math lessons and hung up familiar symbols from the classroom behind him to make students feel more comfortable.

Now back in the classroom, Simmons is emphasizing activities students can do with their hands. They have classroom turtles and do activities with markers on whiteboards, a medium that students are simply more excited to use.

“More paper, pencil things, fine motor skills, cutting, gluing, holding a pencil,” Simmons said. “All those things are still important to me, especially considering all the exposure to technology.”

Simmons said his favorite activity to do with students is to simply have fun, sing songs and play classroom games like dizzy hopscotch. He said he tries to build a relationship with students, and often feels pressure to be a good teacher — “I don’t want to be their first worst teacher.”

Building relationships with parents is crucial as well. Simmons works to offer parents context to the fragmented stories that first graders often go home with. Those relationships have benefitted him.

“There’s the national dialogue that teachers don’t get any respect,” Simmons said. “I think to myself, I’ve never been treated better in my life.”

This was originally published in the 2022 Best of the Boat magazine.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.