Meet Along the Way: Dr. Barbara Capshaw Kohlfeld

Women do incredible things. Here, we feature the stories of women who are a part of the Southeast Missouri community by way of living here, being from here or passing through. We hope these stories inspire you to connect with others and that they encourage you to be who you are in the world. We need you and your unique gifts.

The Zonta Club of Cape Girardeau’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement recipient Dr. Barbara Capshaw Kohlfeld, principal of Blanchard Elementary, says she wants being in her school to feel like a hug. And it does.

It’s not something that just happens, though; it’s a culture carefully cultivated by Barbara, the teachers and the staff at the school. The team works hard to create an atmosphere of what educator Mike Rutherford calls “relaxed alertness,” fostering student-like behavior in the children they teach.

It’s not only felt within the walls of the school; it can also be tangibly seen. Children are engaged at their desks working on writing, coding or independent reading. Students make eye contact with adults as they speak. Kids sit attentively and quietly on floor rugs, listening to their teacher and classmates talk.

Barbara takes her job as leader of the school seriously; it is this attitude of excellence that sets the expectation for greatness amongst students and staff.

“As the principal of the school, I have to be the standard-bearer for keeping things peaceful and calm and safe, expectations high and everybody feeling like they can do their job,” she says. “These teachers’ most important job is to teach. And they’re free to teach, and I try to wall out noise and distraction that’s unnecessary to them. I don’t want them to worry needlessly about anything. I want to keep the focus very clear.”

This is just one of Barbara’s core philosophies about education. She believes in keeping it simple and eliminating the excess. Love is the foundation of everything she does, and she wants the students at her school to be happy and “really love school.” She also wants them to feel “really, really safe” and academically successful. The school fosters this through creating a strong culture of positive affirmation and hard work amongst teachers and staff, helping them to talk about the behaviors they see the students performing, rather than describing the children using negative adjectives such as “lazy” or “disrespectful.” Holding students accountable for their behavior and teaching them to have student-like behavior through discussing 16 social skills is a core tenant of the school. 

One of the most important things Barbara says she does as a principal is hire teachers. She looks for people with a “chronically cheerful” disposition who will be happy and spread joy, as well as people with strong work ethics who will be dedicated to the students. To round out the ideal teacher, Barbara says they have to have the skill set for teaching and learning.

These types of teachers engage students in their own learning, rather than asking them to listen passively at their desks. When a student does behave in a less-than-ideal way, Barbara says she wants to be front and center in the discipline process; this is one of the elements of her job she enjoys the most because she believes it is important to teach young people to take responsibility for their actions. Through talking with the student and including their parents in the conversation, Barbara ensures the situation has been remedied before the child is sent back to the classroom. 

“They know I love them, I value them, I treasure them, I’m working hard for them, but I have expectations for them, and they’re high,” Barbara says. “And we talk about that all the time.”

Another important component of success at Blanchard is goal-setting. Barbara says the teachers work to set goals with the children and if they meet them early, they move the target. In this way, they teach the students to work to be great rather than good. Barbara says she teaches the students to say “thank you” when she tells them they can do better because through that she is giving them a compliment and telling them she believes in them.

Barbara began teaching in the Cape Girardeau School District as a kindergarten teacher in 1981 at May Greene Elementary. She worked as a gifted facilitator for a time and then became the principal of May Greene Elementary in 1993. She says when the school closed and she became principal of Blanchard Elementary, she “left part of [her] heart over there on the South Side.” She says she has no plans of retiring yet; being principal at the school is what she loves to do and is her bucket list (along with the only other item on the list: to see Garth Brooks live in concert.)

It is this desire to dig in deep and give her life to others that helps her students and staff flourish.

“I want the teachers to think of me as someone who’s there to serve them,” she says. “And I want them to know that I’m there all the time to help them. And if anything contentious is going on, I want to be front. … I’m very resolved. I do stay.”