One look at the back of Christopher Markofski’s head tells it all.
The message, “I love school,” is buzz-cut into his hair just above the collar.
“I was always a kid at heart,” says Markofski, 32, the kindergarten teacher at Liberty Elementary School near Spangle.
Now in his second year of teaching, Markofski is a popular figure with students and parents alike in this small community south of Spokane.
He is so dedicated that at times he throws his entire body into his work.
Principal Lori Johnson said he sometimes does cartwheels down the sidewalk when the bus arrives in the morning. The children walk into class enthused to be there, she said.
They are boys and girls who, for the most part, are getting their first taste of formal schooling, and their experience with Markofski will set the tone for their future years.
Creating excitement for learning and making school fun is the key to success, he said, adding, “Kids have to be kids.”
For his talents, Markofski last month was recognized as one of the top 51 entry-level teachers in a nationwide award program.
Jackie Forsman, 5, exclaimed why she likes her teacher: “He does science.”
It’s not complicated science. Last week, the children made bubbles.
There were big bubbles, small bubbles, a sheet of bubbles, even bubble walls.
“It’s clean fun,” said Markofski, dressed in a white lab coat with the words “Science is cool” sewn on the front. Underneath, he wore a sweatshirt with “I love kindergarten” on it.
Of course, there are educational lessons in bubbles, such as measuring their size and viewing the light spectrum in their sheen.
This month, he is taking his students on a field trip to Green Bluff to harvest pumpkins and learn about the produce business. They’ll carve the pumpkins later in class.
One of Markofski’s most visible trademarks is the hat of the day he wears to class.
He has a pirate hat, a chef’s hat, an English police hat, a brain hat and a frog hat, to name a few. Markofski has a story for each hat.
Once a week, the children bake cookies or brownies, an exercise that teaches them to read recipes and measure ingredients, he said. They use the school’s convection oven for baking.
In addition to learning the lessons, the children have some nourishment for their bus ride home.
The classroom is equipped with a karaoke machine and a supply of children’s songs. The kids practice singing, and Markofski makes tapes on cassettes for them to take home to their families.
Another special feature of Markofski’s curriculum is his take-apart lesson. He lets the children tear down broken appliances to learn what’s inside.
Not only do the kids develop their motor skills by using screwdrivers and pliers, the class also has fun running small electric motors that are still operable in a malfunctioning VCR or tape deck.
“It’s such an intriguing learning environment,” said Johnson, who hired Markofski from among a few hundred applicants.
Each year, the SallieMae student loan corporation selects the best first-year teacher in every state and the District of Columbia. The award includes an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and $1,500 cash.
Markofski was chosen based on a nomination from the principal and letters from parents.
While receiving the award at the nation’s capital last month, Markofski said he was greeted by House Speaker Newt Gingrich after Gingrich saw the unusual “I love school” message cut into his hair.
Teaching wasn’t Markofski’s initial career choice.
He grew up in Wisconsin, joined the Navy at age 18, and was trained in aviation electronics.
He got a job with NASA after his discharge and worked as a flight test engineer in California during the 1980s.
Markofski was living in Lancaster, Calif., when he met his wife, Patricia, who was teaching school there at the time.
Before they were married, he helped her in the classroom in Lancaster and got turned on to the idea of being a teacher.
“My wife inspired me,” he said.
After getting married, the couple moved to Spokane, where Patricia Markofski was raised.
Markofski enrolled in the teacher education program at Eastern Washington University, where he majored in reading and early childhood education.
Patricia Markofski teaches sixth grade at Mountain View Middle School in the East Valley District. Like her husband, she has a reputation for doing lots of hands-on projects in her classroom.
On their wedding anniversary, the Markofskis give each other educational aids to help them do a better job teaching.
Markofski said being a teacher is quite different from work at NASA. In his old job, he said, he always felt stressed and underappreciated.
As a teacher, he said, “You feel good going home. Every day you go home with a hug.”
He teaches two classes. One group of 25 children comes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other class of 24 children comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They alternate on Fridays.
He said the parents seem to appreciate his approach to achieving educational goals without being too rigid or academic.
“He’s very patient,” said Janie Teaford, whose daughter, Hannah, was in Markofski’s class last year.
Teaford volunteered in her daughter’s classroom last year.
“He always seems to find each child’s ability and encourages them,” she said.
Teaford still has a snapshot of her daughter that Markofski took during school and sent home as a memento. He does that for all of the children.
Other photos are mounted and posted on the wall outside the classroom.
Markofski’s class isn’t a play day, though. He conducts reading lessons three times a day. He teaches poetry to help the children recognize repetitive word sounds.
Spelling is emphasized. Some of the reading lessons are based around characters like “Mrs. Wishy-Washy,” whose cutout figure is posted below the blackboard.
The classroom is equipped with three computers, so his students get an early feel for keyboards and screens.
Markofski said he most enjoys teaching science. That may be partly because of his background at NASA but also because of the children’s natural curiosity, which lends itself to the basics of scientific inquiry.
“I want them to enjoy coming to school to make it as fun as possible while they are learning things,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: Story appeared in Valley Voice on Saturday, October 5 with new photo. Caption: Spangle Elementary School kindergarten teacher Christorpher Markofski wears a statement of his love of school on his head. Photo by Steve Thompson/The Spokesman-Review