"When I reach a difficult student, a student who is not involved in education or not interested, when I'm able to inspire or motivate them to see the reality of how education could potentially improve their future, that's when I feel best about my job," the seventh-grade communication arts teacher said.
She counts her father among her life's greatest influences. Although Alfred J. Kester died when his daughter was 11, the decorated World War II veteran and his sacrifices to his country remain a guiding force in the teacher's life.
"I have a deep respect for veterans and military personnel, something that was taught and expected of me from both my mother and father," she said.
Wednesday, Kester-Koppenaal will be honored as the American Legion Post 63 Teacher of the Year for 2011. She will receive a plaque and a $350 prize at the banquet.
"We commend her dedication and commitment to inspiring her students, and we're grateful for all of her community service, too," said Terry Crass, vice commander of the Cape Girardeau post.
Kester-Koppenaal has taught communication arts for about a decade at the junior high, with a total of 16 years of teaching experience, including three years at Southeast Missouri State University.
Her father received the Purple Heart and other commendations for bravery for his service in South Pacific campaigns during the war. He was injured in the Philippines, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
"His military experience had been quite horrific," Kester-Koppenaal said. Her father was 90 percent disabled in the final years of his life, undergoing 14 operations from the injuries sustained in the war, she said.
"Growing up with a dad who devoted his life -- literally and figuratively -- to protecting the freedoms Americans enjoy instilled in me a genuine appreciation for the sacrifices sustained by military personnel and their families," she wrote in her Teacher of the Year application letter.
It's a pride she says she takes into her classrooms, something, she said, that gets personal. When students giggle during the Pledge of Allegiance or "assume a less than respectful posture" on Veterans Day, Kester-Koppenaal said she tells them the story of her father.
"I grew up with a man who was disabled because of his sacrifice to the country," she said. "I demand respect from my students because, to me, it is so personal."