Lisa Guenther | Being Her Best in Nebraska

March 27, 2024

“Reading aloud to children is the best thing you can do to prepare them for school and life,” Lisa staunchly maintains. “Research shows that children who’ve been read to from the day they were born know 30 million words by age five,” she points out. “Reading aloud to a child also builds their powers of comprehension and critical thinking, which puts them ahead of children who haven’t been read to from an early age.” So how to close the gap? Helping children make needed gains has been Lisa’s goal in the field of education for over 44 years, most recently as a professor at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska. During her five years at the college, Lisa’s had fun and fulfilled an enduring mission.

“My whole life has been about trying to be the best I can for my students,” she says. “I knew my calling when I was three years old, and that has always inspired me to work hard. I graduated from high school at 16, earned my bachelor’s degree in three years and began teaching first grade at age 19. I had my master’s degree by the time I was 20 and was ready to teach my second year of first grade,” Lisa recalls. She has also earned 55 credits beyond her master’s degree and attributes her ongoing sense of drive to the example set by her family members.

“The people in my family are very hard workers,” Lisa says. “My dad was a farmer. My mom, aunt and older sister were wonderful, committed teachers. They all worked from the minute their feet hit the floor in the morning until the minute they fell asleep in bed exhausted.” Watching them showed Lisa that hard work can be a source of satisfaction.

She also draws her inspiration from reading the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. “They’re pioneer stories with wonderful life lessons for children about hard work and perseverance,” Lisa explains. “The Little House stories also teach you to look on the bright side of life and think about the gap instead of the gain in everything you do—an approach she brings to the demands her profession. “If you love your work,” she says, “it’s not work. So, I feel like teaching is really a hobby I enjoy.”

Lisa especially loved reading to her classes while working in Norfolk’s public schools for 36 years. Teaching first grade made her keenly aware that many children had not enjoyed the benefits of being read to aloud, as she explains. “There was so much need among the children that I became a Title 1 reading instructor. Then I trained to become a reading recovery teacher, a role in which I strived to bring the lowest readers up to grade level and encouraged them to continue reading at home,” Lisa says.

After doing this for a few years, Lisa could have spent her days relaxing at home since she had become eligible for retirement from the Norfolk public schools. Instead, she became the director of reading for Norfolk Catholic School and taught part time at Northeast Community College as an adjunct instructor of early childhood education. Five years ago, she became full-time and devoted her efforts to the crucial years in children’s lives when 90 percent of the brain develops. “I felt like birth to five early childhood instruction,” she explains, “could let me make more of a social impact.”

Lisa’s current role has allowed her to go deeper to the foundation, where she can make a bigger impact on children. It has also allowed her to make a difference for Northeast students by preparing them for a much-needed profession. The college’s ECE program gives students the chance to earn their associate degree, early childhood education certificate or Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™, “a wonderful way to get your foot in the door of the early childhood field,” she says. And Lisa knows how to guide CDA® students to success since she became a PD Specialist so she would understand every step in the process of earning the credential. “The CDA is also part of the pathway toward earning a college degree,” as she explains. “Once the students are in the early childhood profession, they often go on to advance their education because they want to be the best they can be for the children in their care.”

They also serve Nebraska’s goal to be the best place to be a baby or a child, Lisa explains. And reaching this goal is crucial to boosting the economy of the state. “In Nebraska, 76 percent of all available parents are in the workforce. This is one of the highest percentages in the nation, so we have an especially high unmet need for child care. In Madison County alone, the location of our college, we have a child care gap of 433 young children.” It’s a small part of the state’s general child care shortage, and “our Northeast early childhood program is part of the solution. We are training quality child care providers so business in Nebraska can have the workforce it needs to grow.”

That requires people in the state to see that child care is a profession whose members deserve more benefits and pay, Lisa says. “So, I worked to get the message across by speaking before the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce. I put together a presentation in which I laid out all the reasons why quality child care is important. And one of the points I made is that business and industry aren’t going to come to Nebraska unless we have enough child care.”

Groups across Nebraska are coming together to fulfill this goal, and Lisa plays a role in this statewide effort. She is part of the Buffett Institute, Aksarben Foundation, Growing Nebraska Initiative, Power of Preschool, Norfolk Family Coalition, and Norfolk Child Care Collaborative. Lisa is also a member of Read Aloud Norfolk, and reading plays a big role in the extracurricular activities that she designs for her college students and funds by writing grants.

For example, Northeast holds a Family Reading program sponsored by Humanities Nebraska, she explains. “It’s a six-week program for families with school-age children who come to the college one night a week. The families get a free meal, and the college students engage in activities centered on books with the children. It’s an awesome learning opportunity, not only for the children but also for Northeast Community College students.”

So is the read-aloud pajama party that Lisa holds in March to correspond with Dr. Seuss’s birthday. “We invite families in the community to come to the college in the evening and tell the children to wear pajamas,” Lisa says. “The students also come in their pajamas and read books to the children. After discussing the book with the children, we send them home with a snack, balloon animal, book mark and a copy of the book we’ve read together.”

The books Lisa’s students read aloud don’t have to be by Dr. Seuss, but they do have to convey an important message to the children. “Last year, we read multicultural books about caring and kindness,” Lisa recalls. And this year, her students read The Bad Seed by Jory John, about a seed who woke up one day and was tired of being bad. “So, he began being good,” Lisa explains. “He started opening the door for people. He started saying hello. He started washing his hands and found that he felt better being a good seed instead of a bad seed. It’s a great moral for the children,” Lisa says, and food for thought as they chewed on the bedtime snack of sunflower seeds that they brought home with the book.

Children also have a chance to get free books at Northeast’s Springtacular, held at the college’s Egg Complex. “It’s like a huge gym,” Lisa explains, “and we invite businesses and families to come. We encourage each business to set up booths, and some of them have games. Others have health information, and some are banks that give the kids little piggy banks. Our early education department also has a booth where we give away books, thanks to another grant I wrote. The funding also allows us to provide a free meal, so it’s another night of free fun that focuses on reading.”

Lisa also puts a focus on reading as she helps meet the need for qualified early childhood teachers in Nebraska. And her long experience teaching children still comes in handy. “I’ve found that college students are just like big first graders with different needs and ways of learning.” They also benefit from being read to aloud, an activity Lisa makes part of her classroom routine. “I read a story to my students at the end of every class,” she says, “to model how the students should read books to the children who they serve.” It also helps the students pick up a habit that’s crucial in their classroom practice—and way beyond, Lisa believes. “Reading aloud daily to a child will change the world and the world for that child.”


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