This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
When it comes to the beauty of the great outdoors it's hard to beat the Ozark Mountains, especially the portion situated in northwestern Arkansas. Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors travel there to enjoy top-shelf hiking, caving, fishing, and canoeing. If you feel like just looking at flora and fauna, the elk are majestic and, when the leaves change in the fall, the area is absolutely gorgeous.
The region also hosts the self-proclaimed "No. 1 Attended Outdoor Drama," The Great Passion Play — it's a live interdenominational performance covering the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. Staged in the historic Victorian resort village Eureka Springs, the play involves 170 actors and a menagerie of animals. It runs from April through October and is attended by 200,000 annually.
There is also another impressive event occurring in this section of the Ozarks: some life-altering instruction in information technology (IT). The individual doing the teaching is Mrs. Alice Cooper, the business education instructor for Jasper High School in Jasper, Ark., a small town — tiny, actually — with a population of less than 500.
Cooper is a joy to speak with. A pleasant and wonderfully sweet woman whose foremost teaching goal is to make certain each of her students are prepared to succeed, either in college or at a career, when they leave high school.
Tosha Gellerman, a local bank officer and former student of Cooper's, describes her old teacher as the "ultimate example of what a teacher should be — an expert in her field, always striving to do her best for students and continuously searching for new course materials to help them in their future lives and careers."
In addition to being an exceptional teacher, Cooper is known for her exceptional longevity — this is her 49th year of teaching high school. Even more unusual is that she has been teaching at the same school, in the same classroom, for all those years. Three years ago, when administration put new locks on all of the doors, they honored Cooper by presenting her with the original doorknob and key to her room.
Cooper's teaching accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider that the average length of a teaching career is 14 years. So how has she managed to teach for three-and-a-half times that long? "I do what I love, and love what I do," she said.
Teaching high school for almost 50 years requires one heck of a work ethic — the kind that one can only learn on a farm. Cooper and her two sisters, Janie and Ann, were raised on a farm near Mt. Judea where they grew (and butchered) everything they ate. "My parents were really hard workers, working from sunup to sundown every day to provide for us," she said.
Mom and dad did more than work hard. They also harbored a strong aspiration for their girls to attend college, scrimping and saving to make that possible. "Our parents wanted us to become schoolteachers, hoping that, with an education, we would have an easier life and not have to work as hard physically as they did," explained Cooper.
Parental examples of work and sacrifice fell on fertile soil and took strong root in their lives. All three girls went to college and had impressive teaching careers (Ann was a 2nd grade teacher for 32 years and Janie taught kindergarten for 34).
Cooper graduated from high school in 1969 as class valedictorian and set off for Arkansas Tech University to pursue a bachelor's degree in business education. Family members weren't able to help out much financially, and because scholarships were nonexistent at Arkansas Tech at the time, Cooper worked summers and during school to cover her tuition and living expenses.
"I worked in the cafeteria, watched my expenses, and I got out with no debt," she said. Always a hard worker, she completed her degree in three years.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, business wasn't a common career choice for women, but for Cooper it was the only choice. "I've always been intrigued with anything that has to do with business," she explained. "My favorite toys as a child were a typewriter and a cash register in our playhouse."
The newly minted teacher began looking for a job and initially applied at a different local school. When she heard that the business education teacher at Jasper High was leaving, however, she let them know she was interested, and was soon hired. "God knew I needed to be at Jasper, and I'm so happy to be here," she said.
Business classes were different when Cooper began teaching in August of 1972. Handheld calculators were a new thing and generally not used by high school students and no one had even thought about putting computers in the classroom. "Student's desks were small — 18 inches deep and 36 inches wide and each one had a manual typewriter sitting on it," she recalled.
Over the course of her career, Cooper has been on the front row of the evolution in learning technologies. Electric typewriters eventually replaced the manual machines and then, in 1985, she led her students into the age of desktop computing when the district purchased eight RadioShack TRS-80 model 64s for the classroom.
"It was such a wonderful change," she said. "Each machine had an accompanying little printer along with boxes of floppy disks." Today, the newest education technology is firmly ensconced in Cooper's classes as students are equipped with Chromebooks (more on that later).
In spite of almost 50 years on the job, Cooper loves to learn and willingly embraces new tools and devices. Margie Rutledge, the school district's technology coordinator, said Cooper is "among the most progressive business teachers I have met. She is forward thinking and always looking for new avenues in which her students will excel in today's technology-driven workforce."
Although she doesn't teach a dedicated IT class, Cooper includes IT learning in every subject. A strong proponent of everyone's having a good grounding in business — because of the subject's practicability — Cooper insists her students learn the basics of how the economy works and how to manage their own finances.
She presently teaches Medical Office Management, Survey of Business, Financial Planning, Accounting 1 and 2, and keyboarding to 7th graders. And like instructors everywhere, Cooper has a favorite subject. "I enjoy all my classes, but I am passionate about accounting," she said. "I could almost miss a meal to teach accounting."
'Step up and be your best!'
Besides knowledge, the most prominent aspect of Cooper's teaching is her well-known love and kindness for the students — and for everyone else for that matter. Many students affectionately call Cooper "Grandma," because of the care and direction she provides them.
And as a good and stern grandmother, she ain't gonna excuse non-performance. "I want my students to be their best," she said. "I tell them that if their work is their best, I'm happy. But if not, 'Step up and be your best!' "
"We are extremely lucky to have Mrs. Cooper at Jasper High," said Ozarks Unlimited CTE Coordinator, Emilee Tucker. "She has a unique way of being 'grandma' to each of her students, making them all feel important and giving them motivation to do their best."
An adage Cooper lives and teaches by is, "You get respect by being respectful." Because of that, she says there are no discipline problems in class. "I have the best and most respectful students; they are perfect, and I love them."
One former student, Lisa Kelly Taylor, now working as an aide in Jasper High remembers how Cooper would stand in front of the class and remind students that, "Grandma loves you, warts and all." Taylor's children were also taught by Cooper, and have the same respect and appreciation toward Grandma as did their mother.
Teaching with TestOut
Until 2019, Cooper had been using another company's IT courseware to prepare students for their Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification exams. Things were working well enough — the students were successful, and Grandma was happy. The situation changed, however, when the school purchased Chromebooks for the students and, unfortunately for the other company, their platform wasn't compatible with the new devices.
Cooper spent her summer searching for a replacement platform and hadn't found a replacement. With the start of the school year fast approaching, she was feeling a bit nervous and then came across TestOut courseware.
Intrigued by what she saw and, as always, wanting the best tools for the students, she called the company one afternoon to ask a few questions and, in the process, made a new friend. "I called TestOut on a Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.," she explained "and met a wonderful man, Travis Wilde, who was so helpful to me."
Agreeable as always, Wilde answered Cooper's questions and set her up with a 30-day free instructor trial. "He stayed late, tirelessly helping me and answering all my questions," said Cooper. "I will never forget the kindness he extended to me that day. It made my weekend better."
Cooper feels her classes are special because of the MOS certifications and that her goal is for every student to be certified in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint before graduating. "Certifications are important," she said. "They are a way for you to prove you know how to do something important. If a student has a certification, their future is going to be brighter."
Completing a certification means the student gets recognized by having their certificate prominently posted on a wall for everyone to see. "It's important to recognize their success," said Cooper. "They worked hard and accomplished something significant." When it comes to earning MOS certs, Cooper's students have always done well. Last year they were fourth in the state for MOS certifications. "We would have been ranked higher if not for the COVID shutdown," she said.
Now, well into her second year utilizing TestOut courseware, Grandma is happy she made the switch. "I personally think TestOut courseware is awesome and am excited to begin MOS testing again."
While the courseware is great, perhaps the thing that Cooper most appreciates about TestOut is its customer service. "I've never worked with a company with such great customer service," she said. She also has a favorite company contact. "Whenever I need something or have a question, I know exactly who to contact. Stevie George is my go-to person. She is always so kind and helpful to me."
Electronic career portfolio
Cooper's students are encouraged and guided to compile an electronic portfolio that will help them throughout their educations and careers as they access it for information to fill out scholarship and job applications.
The portfolio begins in 9th grade and is a work-in-progress throughout their time at Jasper. It consists of a cover page and a resume listing skills, accomplishments, certifications and work experience. Students take pride in their portfolios and regularly add new achievements to it.
"When they graduate, the portfolio is finished," explained Cooper, "but only as far as high school is concerned. I encourage them to continue adding to it throughout their college and work careers."
Cooper's students are also required to memorize their social security numbers. "It's important to know it for scholarship and job applications and if you know it, you don't have to take out a wallet when you need it," she explained. "Many former students have reflected back on memorizing their numbers and thanked me for it."
Even beloved grandmas can grow tired out and feel the need to stop, relax, and gather their thoughts. Cooper's favorite place to do that is on the banks of the nearby by Little Buffalo River. She calls these needed breaks her "river time."
"I occasionally get so stressed that I need my river time to just sit on the bank of the river, look at the bluffs and listen to the water flow. It's my time to steal away into the quietness and just think."
She also encourages students feeling overwhelmed to disconnect from the hurly-burly of life for a time and recharge their batteries — and she enjoys hearing that they have done so. "I love it when I get an e-mail from a former student and they mention their river time," she said.
Gardening is another method for reinvigorating Cooper. She loves "pretty flowers" and enjoys working around the yard. She also toils in the soil of a large and productive vegetable garden she shares with a nearby sister. "My husband and I call the garden our happy place. We enjoy spending time there and harvesting and canning the fruits and vegetables; last year we canned 200 quarts."
Cooper and her husband Jimmy have been married for 48 years, and family is extremely important to them. They have a wonderful son, Kylan, and also "a sweet-daughter-in-law Brandi and two precious granddaughters, Karlee and Kambree."
"We feel family vacations are important to us," said Cooper. Two of their favorite family vacations were an Alaskan cruise in 2017 and last summer a weeklong fishing excursion on Kodiak Island. "It was the best family vacation ever," declared Cooper. "We caught lots of king salmon, halibut and rock fish. Even an octopus! And saw lots of whales!"
It's easy to imagine that, with such a long and successful career behind her, Cooper might occasionally ponder the end of the road. But, no, not yet. She says retirement isn't in her plan. Her hope and prayer is for good health so that she can continue sharing her enthusiasm for learning with even more students.
With Cooper's passion for teaching, my guess is she easily passes the 50-year mark. However long she continues teaching, and whatever new technologies enter the classroom, her students will always have one constant. Grandma will be there, telling them to be their best and reminding them that she loves them "warts and all."