Difference Maker: Barbara Kohlfeld values culture, student success at Blanchard Elementary

Barbara Kohlfeld
Aaron Eisenhauer

To read about other Difference Makers, visit www.semissourian.com/DifferenceMakers

When Dr. Barbara Kohlfeld graduated from high school, she hadn’t put much thought into what she wanted to do for a career.

“Back in the day, girls were either nurses or teachers.” Kohlfeld said. “I didn’t want to be a nurse.”

Earning her degree from the University of Missouri she became a kindergarten teacher. In 1981, she received her PhD from Southern Illinois University and started applying to schools to be a principal.

“I was ready to go, but I had very little experience.” Kohlfeld said. “It took me a long time to get that first job as principal, which I think was a blessing.”

Dealing with disappointment and rejection taught Kohlfeld to be resilient and tough, she said. She knew she was going to make it one day and no one could crush her spirit.

“When I got my first job as principal so many people thought I was going to be eaten alive,” she said. “But they were wrong.”

Kohlfeld was principal at May Greene Elementary in Cape Girardeau and then moved to Blanchard Elementary in 2000. She was named American Legion Teacher of the Year for 2014 and received the Zonta Women of Achievement Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

Considering herself lucky, Kohlfeld loves being a principal and loves her students.

“I get to work with children. My constituents are all under 4 feet tall. They’re lovely, lovely people.” Kohlfeld said. “I call Blanchard a little slice of heaven, and our children are the angels because they’re so, so good. I find them extremely fun to be around.”

Kohlfeld said it’s very important for a principal to create a wonderful culture in her school. And that it embodies who you are, what you do, your goals and aspirations. It encompasses everything. She presents a culture that celebrates the value and the individuality of everyone, be it staff or students.

“I’m a feedback junkie.” Kohlfeld said. “I love giving people feedback and compliments. I tell the kids all the time, if you think something nice, say it. Because if you don’t say it, people cannot read your minds, and you will lose the opportunity to make someone happy.”

A study in late 2021 from Saint Louis University titled “Beating the Odds: Student Growth in Missouri’s High Poverty Schools,” highlighted Blanchard as one of the top elementary schools in Missouri to attain high learning growth, despite the fact many of the school’s students come from low-income backgrounds.

Improving students’ reading proficiency is a key goal for Kohlfeld and the teachers and staff at Blanchard. She said all her students know their reading level.

“Reading is the cat-daddy of everything. It’s the most important thing,” Kohlfeld said. “It’s very intentional that we tell them where they are and where they need to be and how they’re going to get there. We say, ‘If you work with me, I’ll work with you, and we’re going to hit the mark.’”

Kohlfeld said she wants to live a life with purpose, to feel that what she does matters. Helping her students feel safe and successful in their education gives her a great sense of personal happiness and a feeling of accomplishment.

“I have been given a really great life,” Kohlfeld said. “I am dipping from a deep reservoir that I can give back because I have been given a very blessed life.”

Closer to the end of her career than the beginning, Kohlfeld says she doesn’t like the idea of retirement. She thinks of it like getting off a train at the station where everyone forgets you were ever a passenger.

“I would say about myself that I’m just a little girl from Chaffee, Missouri, trying to do the best with the years the good Lord has given me,” Kohlfeld said. “Life’s pretty finite. And I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I’m a lucky girl.”