Newton Alternative High School science teacher Travis Combs, left, and Janet Neufeld, Newton assistant superintendent for instructional services, laugh at a reception Thursday, Jan. 13, for Combs, a former Liberal resident, in honor of him being named a Horizon Award winner. The award goes to top first-year teachers in the state. Photo courtesy Newton Kansan/Cristina Janney
By CRISTINA JANNEY
• Newton Kansan
NEWTON — Travis Combs did not plan on being a teacher.
Combs, 23, a Liberal native, majored in biology and planned on going to medical school after college.
Life interceded and Combs was recognized Thursday as a Horizon award winner as an outstanding first-year teacher in the state.
Combs’ principal, Lisa Moore, at Newton Alternative High School, said in an essay for his awards application, “Travis Combs exemplifies how a great teacher is called to duty.”
So what made that student bound for medical school decide to go into teaching? In part, it was track. Combs needed a part-time job while he was going to school and running track at Kansas State University.
He landed at Frank V. Bergman Elementary School in Manhattan as a lunchroom and playground supervisor.
“It was a great job, and I met some outstanding administrators and outstanding teachers,” he said. “I became good friends with them all.”
He said he was particularly impressed by the school’s principal — Mitzi Eyestrone — who he said inspired him to set aside his dreams of becoming a doctor and pursue teaching.
Combs said he tries to use the examples of those Manhattan teachers and his own teachers growing up in Liberal in his job teaching science at Newton Alternative High School.
Moore noted Combs regularly goes out of his way to help his students in and out of the classroom.
Combs might spend an afternoon watching his students skate board at the skate park. He might take a student out to pizza because they need someone to listen to them or they just need a friend on a bad day. He has gone fishing with his kids, and he picks students up for school if they have no other way to get there.
“I can be a role model,” he said. “I can help the kids get through their struggles in education or their lives,” he said.
Combs described the students and teachers at Newton Alternative High School as a family.
“Whatever I need to do to lead them in the right direction, I will do,” Combs said. ... “You have to build relationships. Students have to be able to trust you. A lot of the students I have have trust issues. They have to know not everyone is out to get you. To have someone care is truly remarkable for them.”
In the classroom, Combs endeavors to keep his students engaged with hands-on learning.
An example was a lab the students did on cell structure. He used pudding and candy to teach the students about cells and their structures.
“I want to do stuff the students are interested in and key in on the subject. They may remember that red hot are ribosomes,” Combs said. “I try to use different strategies and think outside of the box.”
Combs said he thinks students who attend alternative schools get a bad rap. They are not all bad, they just need some more one-on-one attention, he said.
He said he emphasizes manners and respect in his classes and tries to direct his students into being active citizens in the community.
Some of Combs students participated in downtown internships last school year, some of which led the students being hired by local businesses for more permanent employment.
“I have really high expectations for them,” he said. “I don’t lower them for any individual. They are the same.”
Combs said teaching is sometimes draining. It is definitely not an 8 to 3 job. He said he is interested in furthering his education and perhaps getting a master’s degree in administration, but he wants to stay in the alternative-high-school setting.
“I don’t doubt the work I am doing,” he said. “The other teachers and administrators and I are dedicated. We are devoted to that school.”