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WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — It has been an extremely trying year for Stilwell Junior High School, from death to sickness even to difficult administrative decisions. After spending 20 years in the district, one teacher questioned if her time in the classroom was even worth it.

“You just don`t know if you are making a difference. It’s just been very questioning this year at times,” says Nikki Matthias.

Matthias, a 7th grade math teacher, says she often tells her class to not give up when times are hard. Advice she has had to swallow herself.

Matthias requires all her students to enter her classroom with a smile, something that may sound silly but it serves a purpose.

“As 12 and 13-year-old’s you don`t have a lot of options you don’t have a lot of power but you do the power to make your own choices and make good choices.”

The teacher’s classroom rule was a tough one to follow for former student, Sarah Beck. Now enlisted in the Iowa National Guard, Beck remembers refusing to smile before entering Matthias’ classroom and choosing to sit in the hallway instead.

“I didn`t like her at first. I`m not going to lie. We didn`t get along at the beginning of the year.”

Beck, a self-proclaimed stubborn student says her teacher’s persistence and caring is what turned her attitude around towards school.

“She definitely broke down walls like they didn`t even exist. I don`t understand how she did it but she`s definitely one of a kind.”

The teaching veteran knows school isn’t all about subject lessons but life ones too. She works at building personal relationships in hopes of gaining trust.

“As teachers, we`ve got to be human and sometimes I`m accused of being too motherly but id rather be that than not because kids matter and their lives matter,” says Matthias.