RANCHESTER – Sheridan County School District #1 is a place to paraphrase the old “Cheers” song, “Everybody Knows Your Name.”
Tongue River Elementary School has approximately 240 students, and Principal Annie Griffin knows each of them by name. She knows their passions, interests and struggles.
This deep human connection is familiar to Annie and her husband Robert, who were welcomed into the Tongue River community a decade ago and have never looked back. In fact, that’s what got them there in the first place.
“I really think one of the greatest things that Wyoming has ever created is its education system,” said Robert, a social studies teacher who works at Tongue River Middle School. “In a small school, (my daughter) Kelsey and everyone else. Their teachers really know them and care about them. They may not experience everything that comes in a bigger school, but they know they are loved and appreciated.”
“At Sheridan County School District One, you can see you,” Annie said. “We know who you are, what you have been through and where you are going. And we are here for you.”
For a decade now, the Griffins have kept this tradition of care alive in their schools, and their loving work is visible in many ways. You can see it in the large blue National School banner hanging on the wall of Tongue River Elementary School, and you can see it at the recently established Veterans Memorial on the middle school campus. Mostly, you can see it in the smiling faces of their students.
“I come to school every day for these relationships,” Annie said. “That’s why I love him. I love the job because I love these people, and I want the best for them. You have to put them all above yourself, and sometimes you have to work hard to meet their needs, but it’s worth it.”
The Griffins are both residents of Wyoming, attending high school together in Glenrock before attending and graduating Black Hills State University together. Annie says she wanted to be a third grade teacher, when she started playing school with her friends. For Robert, his career grew out of a deep desire to help others, which he first demonstrated during his years of military service.
“Whatever I did, I knew I wanted to help people,” Robert said. “I started training first, and that was very helpful. From there, it didn’t take long to get into teaching.”
Both Griffins began their careers in Delta School District, Colorado. Annie said, while they were proud of their work in that area, they chose to leave as their daughters reached school age.
“When you are told every year that another million dollars need to be cut from the budget, it gets to the point where you have to wonder where those dollars are coming from, and how those cuts will affect students,” said Annie. . “We had to ask what this would look like for our girls.”
“It was interesting that when our children were old enough to be in the schools we were in, we decided that the schools were not good enough for them,” Robert said. “We decided that our children would get a better education than what Colorado could offer.”
Annie said both Griffins knew their home state well, and Sheridan County was the first and only place they would consider settling down.
“We quickly decided that the Tongue River was where we needed to be,” Annie said. “We knew that a sense of community there would create a beneficial experience for our children and for us.”
The Griffin family has thrived where it was planted, and they have planted some new seeds of their own in recent years. For example, Robert brought a passion for veterans into his middle school job, and his students quickly embraced that passion.
Robert fueled this passion by having his students send letters to local veterans.
“The basic premise was to send as many letters as possible to the local veterans,” Robert said. “When I served and received mail, it was like ‘Someone loves me and the world is right.’ It was like an ice cream truck coming through town—I knew it was going to be special for veterans, hopefully for the students too.”
Things accelerated from there, in the best possible way. The letter-writing campaign spurred the annual gathering to celebrate Veterans Day and celebrate local veterans. That gathering encouraged students to show their appreciation for veterans by creating Memorial Outside the school that was unveiled in 2021.
“It made it easier to see, but the kids were convinced,” said Robert. “I designed what respect for veterans should look like, but they were the ones who took it seriously… The memorial was not built because of me. It was built because of my students and because of the community we live in.”
“You’re looking at this memorial, and that’s something that will go on long after our time here,” Annie said. “This is something we should be proud of.”
Annie has made her own mark in the school district since becoming an elementary school principal in 2017. She has championed the social and emotional wellness of students and created Project GIFT as a way to encourage literacy and put beautiful new books in the hands of every young child in the Valley. Her efforts also led to the school being recognized as an A National Blue Ribbon School earlier this school year.
US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recognized 325 schools as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2021. Tongue River Elementary School and Powell Middle School were the only two Wyoming schools to receive the award for the year 2021. The Tongue River Elementary Award is based on exemplary high performance as measured by Aptitude and Progress Testing in Wyoming.
“Our students have always been known for their kindness,” said Annie. “They are adorable, kind and appreciative, but there is more to it than that. I told our employees that our children should be known for their kindness and academics. Our students and staff educate the whole child, and this award shows that we have been successful.”
While the Griffins have accomplished a lot over the past decade, there is still a lot of work to be done, they said. And when they get frustrated or tired, they draw inspiration from each other.
“Annie inspires me because she is an expert,” Robert said. “She knows the right answer, and if she doesn’t know the answer, she knows where to find it. She has learned the science behind education, and she knows it. She is tireless and will never stop giving the best education to her students. I have said from the start that I am not even the best teacher in my house.” “.
Annie was also inspired by Robert.
“When I started teaching, I thought you just stood up, delivered a lesson and let it soak,” Annie said. “It just doesn’t work that way. Robert taught me that education is about relationships. These relationships enhance my joy and change everything for those around me too. That’s it.”
The Griffins’ daughters, in seventh grade, have witnessed the hard work, grit, and determination it takes to be a teacher. At least one of them wished to follow in her parents’ footsteps one day. Robert’s advice to her is simple.
“If you are going to be a teacher,” said Robert, “you better understand how to love people.” “If you do not have this in your heart as a reason to teach you, you will not go far. Love is where it all begins.”