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Sandy Journal

Beloved Park Lane teacher left legacy in life lessons

Aug 03, 2022 09:09PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At the end of the school year, Park Lane third-grade teacher Susan Homer watched her students play during the annual Field Day. Her chair was on the painted state map on the playground— actually on the islands of Hawaii, a trip she had booked in 2020 that got canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We joked with her that she was finally getting to go to Hawaii,” Principal Justin Jeffery said. “I suspect she wasn’t feeling great. She learned over spring break her liver wasn’t functioning properly.”

Before she left for the summer, Homer picked up new curriculum materials and confirmed with Jeffery she’d be at the training in June. She never made it.

One week after school ended, Homer went into the hospital with bacterial meningitis. She died in a coma two weeks later.

Park Lane PTA, teachers and students lined the streets surrounding the school with purple ribbon —her favorite color. A makeshift memorial of flowers, notes, pinwheels and even her alma mater Utah State University pennant placed by the school marquee.

When the family left the service for her at the church, they drove past the school.

“There were a bunch of students and parents waving and flowers and ribbons were there front of the school,” Susan’s husband Drew said. “It was pretty touching.”

Homer leaves a legacy.

She taught at Park Lane Elementary for 32 years—22 years in kindergarten and the last 10 in third grade.

Former Principal Karen Medlin remembers that transition.

“Susan came to me and said, ‘I want you to consider moving me to that open third-grade position.’ I was shocked,” Medlin said. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ She said, ‘No, but I think I am ready for a new adventure.’ The amazing thing is that she built a whole new reputation as an excellent third-grade teacher. She was a teacher at heart. She knew how to teach, knew how to inspire students, and knew how to build a strong team among her team members and colleagues.”

This upcoming year, Homer was to be the team lead for third grade.

“One of my last conversations I asked if she wanted to be the team lead again or if she wanted to let someone else take the lead. She was like, ‘Oh, come on. One more.’ She likes being in the know and making decisions,” Jeffery said. “Susan was always somebody that spoke her mind which I appreciate. I loved having her on our building leadership team because she absolutely loved Park Lane. She would do anything for kids. As we would talk in the meeting, if there was something she disagreed with, Susan would go super silent because she was respectful. I’d wait, then I would ask, ‘Susan, what do you think?’ She’d say, ‘OK, if you want to know my opinion,’ and then I always knew that we were in for a conversation. She wouldn’t put anyone down or talk all over them or railroad them. She would just go super quiet and then, we’d know to back pedal and give her time to talk about another perspective of whatever we were talking about. But if she agreed with what we're going to do, Susan was all in. She wanted to do whatever was best for the kids and Park Lane—always.”

Medlin, who remembers standing by Homer, singing the school rules to students, agrees: “She was the ultimate leader. She spent many years on the Building Leadership Team and the School Community Council. She shared wisdom, dedication, creative ideas, and love for her students, her school, and her community.”

Homer also was a friend as well as a colleague, teacher Angie Haycock said.

“She was one of the teachers that interviewed me” for a Park Lane teaching opening years ago, Haycock said, remembering even a few months into the school year, Homer “always was checking on me to make sure I knew what was going on and asking if I needed any help. She always had a way of knowing things, like ‘hey, seems like you're having a rough day. What's going on?’ She was very positive, happy, upbeat—and always had a smile.”

The best interest of students extended to teaching them life lessons.

“A lot of kids remember her life lessons, even after they graduate,” Jeffery said. “If there was a problem at recess, they'd come in after recess and she'd say, ‘Before we start on math, we're going to talk about a life lesson.’ She would talk to them about how to get along and how to work together with somebody they don't always see eye to eye with. She taught these types of life lessons because they needed to know them to survive life.”

He remembers when he talked to Homer about starting the day with her life lessons.

“I was trying to get all my teachers to do community circles or morning meetings that talk about the expectations of the students and their day,” he said. “She told me she does life lessons. I’m like, ‘Can you do them in the morning?’ And she said, ‘Yes, but I'm also going to do them in the afternoon and whenever else they need to happen. I want to be able to have a life lesson with my kids so they could learn.’”

Drew Homer said the life lessons was what “she was famous for” in addition to her motto, “You can do hard things.”

“She had hard things in her life, and she wanted to give confidence to the kids that they can handle it,” he said. “It basically comes from who she is—her faith, her personal beliefs, her outlook on life, what's right and what's wrong. She wasn't there just to teach math and science. She was teaching the whole person.”

That mantra was on a sign at the school’s make-shift memorial.

Jeffery said the message of being able to do hard things was in a video his son made for Homer, one of many get-well videos she received.

“She knew how kids learned. She didn't teach down to them. She just said, ‘This is how we do it and it can be hard. And it’s OK for it to be hard, but we can do hard things,’” he said.

Her message is on the school’s website: “You can do hard things. Always believe in yourself. And it's OK to make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. Never give up. Remember to find joy in your journey.”

Former Principal Kelly Tauteoli remembered how Homer taught in her classroom.

“Her room was very calm and positive and fun; she laughed with the kids a lot,” she said. “Susan really cared about every kid. You hear teachers care about students, but Susan really got to the heart of kids because she understood them. She had them very well trained in the procedures and they knew the expectations and she was consistent in them. She was very patient and had supports and was very well organized. She always knew exactly how the kids were doing. She was very on top of their learning and had everything in place to make sure kids thrived.”

Tauteoli also said often times, Homer would have some of the “harder” students in her classroom.

“Susan really seemed to get a lot of the harder kids because she was good with them. She was very patient and had supports in place, and she didn’t cuddle. She wanted to make sure all her students were learning,” she said.

Haycock agrees: “She was an amazing teacher—and tough, but they knew she loved them. She could touch the hardest student and they would love her until now and forever. She always had kids coming back to say hello and tell her what they were up to and she loved that. She loved her students and she lived in the Park Lane neighborhood. Susan would find out when the kids’ plays and musicals were or any sporting event and she would try to go to them, even while her own boys were young.”

She even included students in the fun when she turned 50.

“She came dressed in her poodle skirt, having fun with a ’50s theme, and had a birthday party with the students,” Haycock said. “We also had a ‘Polar Express’ day where they could watch the movie and we served hot cocoa and doughnuts.”

Homer knew how to engage her students in fun experiences such as “unlock the classroom” worksheet competitions and creating poster biographies in her lesson plans.

“She always would say she's a dinosaur when it comes to computers, but she would make Google Slides for her students and we’d be like ‘Susan, what do you mean you can’t do technology?’” Jeffery said. “Anyway, Brett Williams—he taught with her for years and they're just a really good team—he did a biography on Susan and showed it to her class. The biographies are posters with a space cut out so their heads can go through along with a bunch of facts. His picture showed her riding a dinosaur. It was adorable and so funny.”

Jeffery said that Homer became “pretty savvy” with technology during the 2020 soft closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic when she switched her lesson plans online.

“It was very stressful for me,” Homer had said at the time. “Teaching online just freaked out an old schoolteacher like me. I left in tears one day.”

That day, Homer knew how to fix her meltdown—by reconnecting with her students.

“I emailed the parents and went to the kids. I left them packets on their porch and wrote to them how much they meant to me. Then, I stood back on the sidewalk and saw them. I really, really miss the kids,” Homer said. “I saw their cute faces and I remembered why I do what I do. I saw how much what I did meant to them and that gave me the courage to push forward and go online with new material.”

Jeffery said Homer had seen a lot of changes in her career, and she did what was best for the kids.

“One of the things that I've always respected about her is that she never complained or said she wouldn’t do something. There always is something new, but she was always willing to give whatever the district asked of her to do a try. She would give it her best, whatever was good for kids,” he said.

Another memorable lesson was when Homer reached out to the Jordan High band director and the drumline. They not only would play for students, but they taught third-grade students how to drum on five-gallon buckets.

“Instead of singing a song at the sing-along, they would drum with the Jordan High School drumline. They had so much fun, and it made a connection for them for the future and it really was cool experience for them,” he said, adding that Homer was a “big-time Jordan alum” that was always supporting her alma mater. “She also had a friend in the community whose son has a disability and loves to dress up as Santa Claus. Every year, he would be the one that comes in dressed up like Santa Claus—and she’d emcee. I don’t know what we’ll do because that’s the thing, nobody wants to fill shoes that are unfillable.”

The veteran teacher was named 2015 teacher of the year for her school and received the 2018 Sandy Youth Council teacher of excellence award.

“She was extremely proud and appreciative of the gratitude and thoughtful notes that people would send her, just people recognizing that she made a difference in their lives,” Drew Homer said.

Throughout her career, his wife brought home papers to grade and lesson plans to complete, but she would put family first. She found time to make quilts and pillowcases for her sons and her granddaughter Hallie as she’d watch “Jeopardy!” or “Family Feud” or listen to “wholesome” music, as her husband called it.

Her favorite singer was Donny Osmond.

Medlin remembered Homer “always displayed Donny memorabilia in her classroom” and was “on cloud 9” after meeting him.

Haycock added: “The photo of her with Donny was hung on a cabinet in her room. Sometimes she would throw him in there, play little clip for Donnie for a meeting or whatnot.”

While the Park Lake community was secretly making plans to surprise her for the day when she might retire by inviting Donny Osmond to perform, Jeffery can’t help but laugh.

“I can just see Susan one step ahead of me, asking what she always did, ‘How’s that working for you?’ In this case, I’d have to say not very well,” he said, adding now he hopes to install a purple bench on the playground in her honor. “She had a way of asking so we’d re-evaluate what we’re doing, but always saying it in a positive way. She’s still teaching those life lessons.”