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First-year teacher Connie Johnson became so attached to the boys and girls who were in her first-grade class that she considered teaching second grade next year so she could stay with them.

But Johnson knew it would be best for the students she still calls "my kids" to go on without her. So next fall, she will return to a classroom full of new faces at Horizon Elementary School."Sometimes you feel like the mother duck who has to let her babies fly on their own," she said. "You want everybody to soar as high as they can, and you want to be right there lifting them."

Johnson's dedication to both her students and her second career did not waver during what was a difficult school year for teachers throughout the state.

Last fall, Utah teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest a tax cut and threatened a prolonged strike if the Legislature didn't spend more money on education.

Lawmakers did increase funding in a number of areas, including computer technology, and gave teachers a $1,000 annual raise. But Johnson agrees with many other Utah teachers that more must be done.

Although she volunteered in her own children's classrooms before deciding to go back to Brigham Young University for a second degree in elementary education, Johnson didn't understand teachers' problems until this year.

"I didn't really believe all that," she said of the stories of supply shortages, overcrowded classrooms and other concerns about classroom conditions repeated over and over by frustrated teachers.

When the school year ended in the Murray School District Thursday, there were 27 students in Johnson's class. During the school year, she had as many as 35 students in her class.

With less than two minutes of her time available for each student per hour, Johnson said it was difficult to give the boys and girls in Room 21 the kind of attention she felt they deserved.

"I try to make sure every kid is stroked every day," she said, describing her efforts to build their self-esteem. "I tell them I like the way they breathe if there's nothing else to say."

During the last full day of classes on Thursday, Johnson found plenty to say about her students as they colored and cut out paper clown puppets. "Good job. Very nice. Really cute. I like the way you share," she told them.

Turning to a visitor, she added, "Now do you see why I'm going to miss these guys and why I'm going to be really sad at the end of the year? They're such good workers."

Johnson has seen the results of her efforts. One of her biggest successes this year came when a girl who had never even held a pencil before starting school finally grasped the skill of reading.

"She had to have someone tell her that she could," Johnson said. "I thought I'd die - she looked up at me one day and said, `I can read! I can read!' "

The self-esteem lessons stick. A boy in her class suffering from homesickness after moving from Utah to Wyoming gave Johnson a card with the hand-written message, "I have some good days," during a recent visit.

Giving that much feedback, on top of teaching academic lessons and keeping her class in line, was draining. Johnson said many days she went home to her own family exhausted.

"The pace of things really surprised me," Johnson said. "I had no idea that things would have to be so fast in the first grade. Their attention spans are so short."

The pace will slow but not stop for the now-experienced teacher over the summer. After a vacation with her husband and two children, Michael, 13, and Ryan, 10, Johnson will start preparing for next year.

When she comes back to Horizon to re-decorate her classroom and pore over her lesson plans, Johnson will pass two small, frail trees planted in her honor during Teacher Appreciation Day.

"The kids will have what I taught them forever. And those trees will be there forever," she said. "Someday, both will be stable and on their own."