Former hairstylist followed unusual route to educating students at a school library in Virginia
Posted on
October 24, 2022
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This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.‍

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IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

‍In November 1785, Scottish poet Robert Burns was out plowing spent crops into a field to enrich the soil. As he toiled, Burns accidentally turned up a field mouse's nest, which the tiny creature had dutifully prepared in order to survive the winter.

According to legend, Burns realized that his actions had completely and unwittingly destroyed the mouse's plan for survival. Shortly thereafter, he composed the famous poem "To a Mouse," which includes the well-known and frequently misquoted line, "The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry."

The theme of the poem is the futility of planning for a hopeful future in the face of unforeseen consequences. In short, our lives don't always go the way we want, regardless of how hard we try to make it so. Just like the mouse, a life-changing event can happen to anyone at any time. Unlike the fate of Burns' hapless mouse, however, not all-life changing events are bad.

From chic cuts to Christian college

Tammi Cooke, a pleasant and delightful woman, was working as a hairstylist in Riverside, Calif. She enjoyed her job and had absolutely no plans to do anything else. Until, that is, she one day received a spiritual nudge informing her that she needed to teach the Word of God to young people—and would have to be trained to do so.

"I had no desire whatsoever to attend college," explained Cooke, "but one day God told me, 'You're going to Bible college.' "

A faithful Christian, she laid down her comb and scissors and answered the call. She enrolled in college, and in a few short years, she graduated as a full-fledged licensed and ordained Youth/Children's Minister.

For seven years thereafter, Cooke worked with young people, first in Georgia and then in Washington State. She was happy helping young people learn and live Christian principles and, by all measures, content.

At the end of Cooke's seventh year, however, the wheels of God began turning to move her into another career, on the other side of the continent. She had planned to continue on as a youth pastor until a perceptive friend asked her a simple question. "Just out of the blue, a friend asked if I had ever considered teaching. I gave a resounding, 'No,' " said Cooke.

Acknowledging Cooke's talent for teaching young people, the friend told her he was going to immediately make a phone call to Dr. Minta Hardman, the administrator for Mountain View Christian Academy (MVCA) in Winchester, Va.

Hardman liked what she heard, calls were exchanged, and in a very short time, Cooke was in Virginia. "It happened so fast," said Cooke. "I moved across the country and arrived in Winchester one day before teachers reported to the school."

Starting over again

IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

Many a Christian will tell you that when the Lord moves a person to someplace new, it is always for the better — and MVCA has certainly been that for Cooke. "I love it here! This is my 16th year teaching, and I wouldn't want to go anywhere else," she declared.

Cooke was originally hired to teach second grade and did it well for 10 years. Then one day, school administrators decided that her talents as an instructor needed to be shared with the entire student body. She was transferred to MVCA's library and computer lab to teach library skills and computers to the entire student body.

Computer instruction at MVCA is mandatory for everyone, even kindergarteners. Students in the kindergarten through sixth grade visit Cooke twice a week, once for library skills and once for computer skills. Not surprisingly, in the era of smartphones and iPads, the students' first challenge is learning to operate an actual computer.

"It's kind of funny to me, because the kids are tech savvy to a point," Cooke said. "They know how to use a phone and a touch pad, but have no idea how to use something that isn't touch sensitive."

Children in the younger grades learn the basics of computers — with a healthy dose of online safety practices — but the real tech action begins at the start of the last semester of seventh grade and continues on into the first semester of eighth grade. That's when Cooke introduces the students to Microsoft Office skills.

"My goal with Office is to help each student develop computer skills that will get them into the workplace or college," said Cooke.

Because MVCA is a small school with limited resources, they have to get a lot done with very little. For example, students have to share computers. This means taking notes the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil, a method that enables them to better focus on class lessons. It also frees up Cooke to work directly with each student.

Getting inside of Microsoft Office

One of her most effective tools for teaching Microsoft Office skills is the Office Pro courseware created by TestOut Corporation, which Cooke says she discovered by accident. "I honestly, don't know how I found it. I must have gotten an e-mail from something, and someone said, 'Check this out because you'll get a grant.' "

Cooke first used Office Pro with her eighth grade class in 2020. The results were positive enough that she decided to make the courseware a permanent part of her classes. "I told my bosses, 'You're buying this for me every year,' " she said with a laugh.

Office Pro is a perfect fit for Cooke's non-static teaching style and helping students master the subject. "Office Pro is great for my students because there are no textbooks, and they can go back and review and re-practice and fix stuff for a better grade as often as they want," she explained.

IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

"I want them to really know the subject, and not for me to give a student a D grade that they'll have for the rest of their life just because they didn't understand things well the first time."

Teaching, for Cooke, is a two-way street — she likes to see her students learn, and sometimes learns new things herself. "I love the 'light bulb' moments when you can see them get it," she explained. "And I enjoy it when they teach me a shortcut of something that I didn't know. That always makes them happy when they teach the teacher."

When students inevitably ask questions about attending college, Cooke is honest and holds nothing back. "I tell them that if they want to go, then go, but if college isn't your thing, don't waste your money. Go learn a trade instead — a person can have a good living if they know a trade."

Career guidance is also straightforward. "I tell them it's lame to have a job you hate," said Cooke. "Go find something you can earn a living at and that you enjoy doing."

"Labrary Lady"

Since computer instruction takes place in the school library and involves practice labs, Cooke has dubbed the room the "Labrary" and herself the "Labrary Lady." The change makes sense because during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, she completed a master's degree in instructional technology, which she uses to support her colleagues.

"Not only do I get to teach my own classes, but I also get to collaborate with other teachers," she said, "and help them integrate technology into their classrooms."

Dr. Hardman is a big fan of the Labrary, as well as a fan of what happens there. "Tammi Cooke is exactly in her niche as our 'Labrary Lady,' " said Hardman. "She is passionate about teaching our students how to use all printed materials and technology in an effective, engaging way and with a Christ-centered worldview.

"She shares her knowledge and expertise freely with not only her students, but our faculty and even our parents."

To make the Labrary even more useful to all students, Cooke has set aside a section of the room to create what she calls the "Makerspace." The Makerspace is beginning to fill up with all manner of odds and ends such as toilet paper rolls, wood, string, LEGO pieces and a host of other doodads that children might enjoy tinkering with.

"Makerspace is going to be a place kids can come during free time to be creative and just do whatever appeals to them," she said.

Biblical principles

IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

As a Christian school, MVCA works hard to prepare its students to become functioning adults able to care for themselves and be useful members of society. Lessons from the Bible are integrated into each curriculum and frequently referenced as a way to help students learn and understand the value of important character traits.

One of Cooke's most oft-referenced biblical principles is persevering through difficulties. If a student is struggling to grasp a concept and wants to quit, she will ask them what the Bible says about not giving up — and point to 2 Thessalonians 1:4: "Therefore among God's churches we boast about perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring."

"The more students learn to persevere at a young age and put forth effort to learn new things, the better it will be for them later in life," Cooke explained. "It's OK to not be right the first time, as long as you keep trying."

The teaching of morals, ethics, and Christian principles is a big job, requiring input and support not only from teachers and administrators, but also parents. "Mountain View's philosophy is that school is a partnership between church, family, and school," explained Cooke. "We support the parents as much as the kids; parents and students have cell phone numbers of most teachers and can call us anytime."

Another crucial element to MVCA's success is its strong Parent Teacher Fellowship (PTF) that has worked hard over the years to raise funds for placing technology in classrooms. "Our PTF is amazing, always working hard to help the school and teachers do their job," said Cooke. "We are blessed to have them."

Administration also keenly supports the teachers. "Our administration is great," said Cooke. "Minta (Dr. Hartman) may not always agree with us, but she always supports us in front of the parents and students — although she may want to have a private talk with us later in her office."

World traveler

IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

Even hard-working Labrary Ladies take time to relax and recharge their teaching batteries. One of Cooke's favorite ways to unwind is to bury herself in a good book. "As a self-professed nerd, I love learning new things constantly, and books do that for me," she said.

"As a child, all I wanted to do was read, it was my favorite thing to do. I would read so much that sometimes my parents would take my books away until I went outside and played."

Books are not Cooke's only method of escape from the demands of daily living — she frequently packs a bag and sets off to foreign lands. Her goal is to visit all seven continents and thus far she has visited 23 countries on four different continents. "Four down, three to go," she laughed.

Her three unvisited continents are Africa, South America, and Antarctica, and she has a plan to reach all of them. "I've got friends in Africa, so I'll go visit them. And you have to go through Argentina to get to Antarctica, so I'll be able to hit both of those continents on the same trip," she explained.

Cooke is a gung-ho adventurer and not afraid to try new experiences, including dining on regional delicacies. She recently returned from Belize where she snacked on termites during a jungle hike. "I like to sample the local cuisine. Some of it tastes pretty good," she said.

While she does hike while travelling, it's in the water that Cooke has her greatest enjoyment. "My absolute favorite activity when travelling is snorkeling. It doesn't matter where I go; give me a snorkel, a mask, and a beach and I'm happy," she said.

Her number one bucket list destination is a tie between the Republic of Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Egypt. "They're both intersting places, especially Egypt," explained Cooke. "I studied Egypt in college and really want to see the Valley of Kings and the tombs."

Treading the boards, treading life's path

IT educator Tammi Cooke took a roundabout path to teaching.

When not on the road, Cooke is often found at home quietly living with her "fur babies," two dogs and two cats. Her students named the cats after cheeses: Smokey and Cheddar. The dogs are Guinness and Luca.

She is also heavily involved in The Winchester Little Theater. The Little Theater has been putting on productions since 1930 and is currently housed in an old Pennsylvania Railroad freight station (circa 1895).

Cooke sometimes serves as an assistant stage manager in charge of actors and props, but her regular duties include sound design and effects, as well as finding the perfect music for a scene. She will even occasionally step onto the stage.

"I just finished a show, Chasing Manet, where I played a character who spoke, but was not connected to any actual conversations," Cooke said. "So it was fun to shout out random things." Cooke's character was a crowd-pleaser — sort of. At least one audience member would get a surprise at every performance when Cooke would blurt something right in front of them.

Cooke is a faithful Christian and speaking with her about the course of her life, I couldn't help but compare her to the Old Testament prophet Jonah. Neither of them had any plans to relocate, nor start a new career, yet both suddenly wound up in entirely unexpected places.

The difference is that Cooke willingly answered the Spirit's call. (Jonah got around to his assignment eventually, following a digression through the belly of a whale.) The great similarity is that both of them, through steadfast effort, helped change lives for the better.

Cooke may not have saved an entire city — yet — but she has made a positive difference in the lives of many students and coworkers. For more than 16 years, Cooke has diligently worked to make her corner of the world a better place. That is something we all should strive to do.

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About the Author

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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