Jane Leath, a kindergarten teacher at Searfoss Elementary, was honored as this year's Johnstown-Monroe recipient of an award for outstanding teacher by the Licking County Foundation.

Jane Leath, a kindergarten teacher at Searfoss Elementary, was honored as this year's Johnstown-Monroe recipient of an award for outstanding teacher by the Licking County Foundation.

Leath, a 37-year veteran of the system, was presented with an original work of art, a glass apple sculpture prepared at The Works in Newark.

Each year, the Licking County Foundation recognizes 14 teachers, at least one in each school district in the county. For Leath, the recognition was special - not only because she's retiring this year, but because she has been battling a recurrence of cancer 10 years after her first diagnosis.

"We have all admired her dedication to her students through the physical challenges," said principal Janet Smith. "She has been at school every day she could possibly be here, in her classroom, and her students are on target for their learning goals for the year."

The foundation attempts to surprise award winners, and Leath said they succeeded.

She said she heard an announcement that teachers were supposed to go to their "appointed meeting place." She had no idea what the message was about, but decided if she was supposed to be someplace, someone would come and get her.

"In about a minute, all these people start walking in, and I'm thinking, 'Whoa, I must have really missed the boat. I'm in big trouble, they're coming to get me.' Then I saw Wes, my husband, and I thought 'what is going on?'"

Leath graduated from Johnstown High School and has lived in the community nearly all her life. Her mother was Delta Imogene Green, of the Green family who were among Johnstown's first settlers and the namesake for Green Hill Cemetery.

Leath's family operated the Emerson Funeral Home for five generations, with her brother being the last operator.

"I lived in the funeral home," Leath said. "When we had a funeral we all pitched in and we knew which chairs got moved out and which chairs got moved in

"While I was growing up, nobody wanted to stay overnight with me, especially to have a Halloween party at my house," she recalled. "I had one, and some of the children were very brave, but they said they never wanted to do it again."

Leath said she is torn about changes to kindergarten since 1974, when she started.

"I think 'Sesame Street' was the one educational program of the time that changed kindergarten academics," Leath said. "More and more children were coming in already meeting the expectations for the end of the year.

"By 20 years ago, the expectations had been stepped up a little bit. More children had been going to preschool, which gave them a leg up. They knew what quiet time meant."

In the last few years, more students are coming who have not attended preschool, which Leath attributes to the declining economy.

Leath said she enjoys the intervention programs offered today, and part of her would support year round schooling. But another part of her would like to see the standards relaxed just a bit, allowing the reading time and art time that kindergarten used to primarily consist of.

She's not sure it makes a difference.

"Some studies show that by the time they reach fifth or sixth grade, you can't pick out which ones had all-day every-day (kindergarten)," Leath said. "It seems to level out by third grade. In the long run, it levels out."

At the beginning of the year, Leath sent a letter about her illness home to parents, asking them to address the issue as they felt best with their children, but saying it was not going to be part of the classroom.

"The children do know I am not well," Leath said. "This is my second go-round with cancer. When I'm at school, it's a normal day and I'm a normal person. We don't talk about it at school. I let the parents know and I don't broach it with the kids."

Leath said the children remain focused, but they acknowledge her condition, too, and demand that she give them a hug when she leaves the class once a week.

"When I do have treatments, now it's just Tuesday afternoon, I'm here to meet them and greet them in the morning, so they have continuity and security," Leath said.

"When I say I'm going to treatment, and I cannot leave without each and every student giving me a hug. The last couple times we had a group hug, and I had to hold on to the desk to keep from getting knocked over. They're giggling and laughing and I had one little boy who was on the outside saying, 'Oh, excuse me, pardon me, I didn't mean to squeeze you, I just want to hug.'

"It's hysterical, but it brings tears to your eyes. They're smiling and they're goofy and giggly, and you chuckle at some of the things and the way they do their problem-solving as they learn to become independent. All they want to do is have a happy, safe time and feel secure and love you or like you."