There is more than meets the eye when talking about Mrs. Cooke, the beloved Upper School science teacher. Many know her as a biology teacher, but she also has experience working in the corporate world, as an entrepreneur, an avid traveler, an athlete, and a sponsored rock climber. Mrs. Cooke has lived in six different states and has always thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors. Whether it be rock climbing, mountain biking, or running, if it is outdoors, chances are she loves it.
Shortly after being born in a small town in Ohio, Mrs. Cooke’s family moved to Naples, Florida. She grew up in Naples and loved every minute of it. “It was fun growing up in Florida. I remember spending a lot of time on the boat with my family and friends. We were always in the Gulf, fishing and diving.”
After graduating from high school, Mrs. Cooke left Florida. “I wanted to branch out and experience new things.” She attended University of South Carolina, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Shortly after graduating from USC, she took a job in Columbia, South Carolina as an Environmental Consultant. She loved the job, but at a starting salary of $19,000 per year, she decided the pay was not enough to make a decent living and subsequently took a job in the corporate world. She moved to Atlanta to work at Marcus Evans but quickly grew to dislike city life.
After a year in Atlanta, Mrs. Cooke decided to go back to USC and get her Masters in Education. “I never wanted to be a teacher, honestly, because, no joke, all of the women in my family were teachers. I just felt like I wanted to break that mold.” But teaching was something that she always felt that she was good at. After receiving her Masters in Education, she took a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee for an interview at The Howard School of Academics and Technology. “Once I got there, I found that it was deep within the community housing projects of Chattanooga.” Though this was a different experience than any she had found herself in previously, when she met the principal of the school, who was “an awesome, strong, independent black woman who had a real passion for education and the community,” she just knew that she had to work for her. Following the interview, the principal offered Mrs. Cooke a job as a biology and physics teacher, which she immediately accepted.
A few years later, Mrs. Cooke was offered a job at the Baylor School in Chattanooga. Baylor School is a co-ed college prep school, much like Collegiate, except that it is also a boarding school. “I was attracted to Baylor because it had a great outdoors program and a strong global program. I knew that taking the job at the Baylor School would be a good career move.” Mrs. Cooke taught life science and introductory courses for chemistry and physics. At Baylor, she met Upper School history teacher Mr. Brad Cooke, who also worked with the outdoors program, and they became instant best friends. “Because Baylor was a boarding school and we lived on campus, it was difficult to develop a relationship there.” So, after taking a road trip together to Florida, they decided that they would leave Baylor and move to Key West.
They decided to take jobs in the service industry at different restaurants on Key West. They enjoyed being there but quickly were both ready for something new. “We were in a point in our lives, before children and big responsibilities, where we knew that we wanted to see as much and do as much as we could before we started a family.” They knew that they wanted to go out west but had not figured out to where at that point. “I wanted to go to San Francisco because my best friend lives there, and Mr. Cooke wanted to go to Colorado to be a ski instructor. So, we decided to move to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for the ski season and after that ski season we would move to San Francisco.” It didn’t work out that way, however. They immediately fell in love with Steamboat. Mr. Cooke got a job as a ski instructor and Mrs. Cooke, even though she had very little skiing experience, was a ski instructor for kids. Later, she took a position at Colorado Mountain College in Admissions and taught Biology 101 & 102 as an adjunct faculty as well. Later, she took the position as a biology teacher at Steamboat Springs High School.
After being in Steamboat for a few years, Mrs. Cooke wanted to open her own business. She designed and created her own retail boutique, Over The Moon, which was a fashion jewelry and accessories store. “I’d always wanted to own my own business, and I thought living in a ski town would offer a great opportunity to do that.” Creating this business from the ground up was an incredible learning experience and not something she had ever done before. The business took priority over everything, even their wedding. “Mr. Cooke and I got married on a Saturday and first thing Sunday morning we were in the store, laying the floor and putting the furniture together so that we would be able to open the store that Monday.” When the recession hit in 2008, it made being a small business owner quite difficult for Mrs. Cooke. “I thought I always wanted to be a business owner, it always seemed so romantic. But, the reality is that you don’t own the business, it owns you. For the first few years, I worked almost seven days a week, including holidays. And, after I was released from the hospital after having [our son] Cyrus (’28), I only had six days off before I needed to be back at the store.” Although it was an extremely gratifying experience and they learned a lot from it, the Cookes decided that at the end of their lease they would sell the business and prepare to move back east to be closer to family.
The Cookes debated what they would do next. Having Cyrus changed the priority a bit and they were not comfortable just jumping in the car and seeing where life took them anymore. They identified Richmond as a possibility and after sending out their resumes in the area, Mrs. Cooke was offered a job at Steward and Mr. Cooke was offered one at Collegiate, so they decided to move to Richmond. Mrs. Cooke taught seventh and eighth grade Life and Earth science at Steward for a year and later took the job she holds now at Collegiate in the science department. “I thought Collegiate would be a better place for me because of the vastness of the school and the types of positions, I felt that there would be more opportunities as a faculty member here. Mr. Cooke and I also wanted to work together and we wanted Cyrus to go to Collegiate as well so we would all be together.” Almost two years ago Mrs. Cooke had her second child, Sage, who will eventually be in Collegiate Class of 2032.
Education is not Mrs. Cooke’s only passion, however. Athletics are an integral part of her life. “I was a competitive swimmer for 17 years, since I was five.” She swam for the University of South Carolina, Division I, for two years before retiring. After that time, she was able to explore other sports and found rock climbing. She was an extremely competitive rock climber, which lead to several corporate sponsorships with Evolv and Montrail. She took a break from climbing when they moved to Steamboat Springs, however, because “there just wasn’t much climbing in that area of Colorado, so I basically took a six-year hiatus. Now I enjoy climbing because I don’t feel so much pressure like I would in competitions. It’s just more pleasurable for me that way.”
Mrs. Cooke has also always been into running. To date, she has competed in one marathon, one ultramarathon (34 miles), 15 half marathons, two half-Ironmans, and numerous triathlons. “As I was training for the ultra marathon, which was 34 miles on the trails of Colorado, I became pregnant with Sage. My doctor said that since I had been training, she thought that I would be fine, so I cautiously continued on and ran the race.”
Currently, Mrs. Cooke is working on her doctorate in education through VCU to earn a degree in Administration and Leadership. So far, she is two semesters into the nine semester program.
Between teaching at Collegiate full time, working on getting her doctorate, and spending time with Mr. Cooke and their two kids, it is amazing to think about what Mrs. Cooke is capable of. She is smart, caring, independent, strong, and most of all an amazing leader. I believe Mrs. Cooke is an amazing person, and Collegiate could not be more fortunate to have her in its community.
All photos courtesy of Shayna Cooke.