Karin Moneke, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Battle Creek Elementary School, discusses children's novel "On My Honor" with a group of students on Oct. 25, 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Parents, students and colleagues nominated sixty-one Salem-Keizer educators for Crystal Apple Awards this year. The award, given annually by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, recognizes staff who make a significant difference in the lives of children.

A dozen winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Nov. 1. Leading up to the event, Salem Reporter is profiling three teachers nominated by a parent or student.

Seven students sat around a small table, weighing how they’d respond if a friend was drowning in a rushing river.

Their teacher, Karin Moneke, asked them to put themselves in the shoes of Joel, the main character from “On My Honor.”

The Battle Creek Elementary School fourth and fifth graders were about halfway through the children’s novel. They were considering Joel’s choice to go swimming in a dangerous river with his best friend, Tony. When Tony begins drowning, Joel tries to save him, but eventually gives up.

“What would you have done?” Moneke asked.

One by one, they weighed in. Some said they would risk their own lives to save their friend. One student, Morgan McElligott, said was less likely to give up on a family member.

Then the teacher spoke.

“It’s hard,” Moneke said. “I feel like I want to say I would have kept diving no matter what, but I don’t know that I really would have. It’s a hard question.”

For Moneke, the early afternoon session is her favorite part of the day teaching 31 kids. The time, she said, gives her a chance to connect with her students individually and help them connect with characters and situations in the books they read.

Fifth-grade students Grace Cruz, left, and Holland Lineburger work on book group assignments in Karin Moneke's class on Oct. 25, 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Her class is split into four groups by reading level, each working through a different book. She meets with each group weekly to check on progress and discuss what they’ve read.

 “One of my greatest joys is when students can’t bear to give back their book club book after we’ve finished reading,” she wrote in an email.

Moneke is among 61 Salem-Keizer educators nominated for a Crystal Apple award this year.

Given out annually by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, the awards recognize teachers, administrators, instructional aides and other school staff nominated by students, parents and colleagues.

Her nomination came from parent Christina Farwell, who said Moneke listens to and values each one of her students. She goes out of her way to get to know them.

“Because she cares about the students and shows genuine interest in their lives and what they are experiencing, they trust her and share what they are going through,” Farwell wrote.

That includes supporting students’ pursuits outside of class, Farwell said. Moneke once came to her daughter’s baking competition on a Saturday morning.

“I’m very, very happy for her but not at all surprised because she totally deserves it,” said Breyonna Caldwell, a parent volunteer who helps in Moneke’s class.

Moneke began teaching in Salem-Keizer in 2000 and spent seven years in the classroom before taking time off to raise her own two children. She came back in 2014.

She grew up in a family of educators and decided when she was young that she wanted to join their ranks.

Moneke learned about the job by watching her mother decompress each day after class. Unlike many other teachers starting out, she knew the job wasn’t all “sunshine and rainbows.”

She knew there would be difficult nights where she’d stay awake worrying about one of her students.

“It’s not a job you leave behind,” she said. “You carry it with you.”

But seeing her mother interact with her students showed her the payoff.

“When she was out and about, students would see her and their faces would light up and they would give her hugs,” Moneke said.

Karin Moneke asks her students students following an afternoon book group discussion on Oct. 25, 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Having her own children deepened her understanding of her students’ lives, Moneke said.

“I look at all of the kids like they could be one of my own,” she said.

She knows about the various crises families might be facing on any given day.

“School might be my main focus, but it’s not always theirs,” she said.

Moneke’s students and parents say her dedication is apparent. When she wants students to be quiet, she doesn’t raise her voice. “She gives us a look,” said fifth-grader Tessa Johnson. Johnson’s tablemates nodded in agreement.

But when students forget something or need it explained again, Moneke is patient, “really nice,” fifth grader Grace Cruz said.

When they’ve been focusing on something difficult in class, she’ll give them a quick dance break to help them stay engaged, Cruz said.

Moneke said she doesn’t like being in the spotlight, but is grateful to work in a community where parents and colleagues value the work she does.

She feels “super supported” by the families of her students, she said.

“I love what I do and I work really hard at it,” she said.

Got a tip? Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.