Friday, January 9, 2009

My Three Mentors

I have been very fortunate to have had three outstanding mentors in my teaching career. I believe they are the reason I am the teacher I am today and why am where I am. (I'm beginning to sound like Popeye: I am what I am and that's all that I am . . . )

When I was a beginning teacher in Galva, Illinois, I was greatly influenced by Marge Dickinson, who was a colleague and art teacher at the high school. Marge was probably about twenty years older than I, and so "together." She and I took some grad classes at night in the same location and so we spent lots of drive-time together, which is where I think I learned the most from her. Marge taught me some very valuable things about classroom management and organization, relationships (public and personal), and learning. She had it all--intelligence, style, confidence, speaking ability, humor, ambition, and enthusiasm. She not only was a successful teacher, she had a beautiful home and family and ran her own business, a restaurant and gift shop, as well! Probably most importantly, Marge provided me with the model of a successful woman in the education field. Now in her 70s, Marge is still involved in art education in Illinois and the arts in her community.

The second important mentor in my life was Walt Westrum, who was the superintendent of Hall High School in Spring Valley, Illinois, where I taught for ten years before moving overseas. Walt, above all, was a visionary in education. He could see more than all of us of what could be, and he also made more happen than we could imagine. Our little school of 500 students in the middle of nowhere became recognized throughout the state and even nationally for pioneering the use of technology in schools. Under Walt, the school built an early working satellite dish and formed a partnership with NASA. We were the first, by far, to have computers and to use word processing to teach writing. We had computer labs before the colleges! And Walt got me involved in computers and their use in education. He paid for us to come in the summer and get trained. He got the school board to finance the purchase of personal computers (Commodore 64s) for any teacher who wanted one and deduct it from our pay without interest. He was smart, because we all started using them! He had me presenting at state conferences on the use of computers to teach writing. This was in the very, very early 1980s, before the internet even! This led to my being selected for a summer fellowship at the University of Illinois with a select group of English teachers from throughout the state for a Writers Outreach Workshop in 1985. From Walt, I learned the importance of vision and became involved early in the technology movement and in staff development. He empowered me in so many ways. Yet he was also one of the gentlest, kindest, most generous men I've ever known. When I applied to go overseas, Walt encouraged me to go for it. Unfortunately, Walt died unexpectedly in 2006. I miss him.

The third mentor to bless my life was Larry Philpot. Larry was the District Superintendent of Nuernberg and then Heidelberg. He became Director of DoDDS-Europe before retiring in the late 1990s. Larry, like Walt, was a gentle, kind, and generous man, but he was also tough as nails, straight-talking, and a guy who got things done (and done now!). Larry is the person who moved me out of Ansbach High School and into the district office. When he moved to Heidelberg, he took me and my family, too. When he moved to the Europe Area Office, he kept me under his wing. Larry, more than anyone, is responsible for the birth, growth, and success of the AVID program in DoDDS-Europe. He always took care to protect, nurture, and support it, and he did the same for me as his AVID Program Monitor. And when I took a year's leave of absence to work for the AVID Center in Atlanta, Larry continued to mentor and support me there. It if from him that I learned how to lead, coach, inspire, and get things done. He taught me how the system worked and how to work the system. He, like the others, empowered me. He basically told me, "AVID is yours; make it work." AVID was important to Larry, as it was to me, because it was all about making kids successful. If I could develop any great skill, I'd like to be a powerful speaker like Larry. One of my favorite quotes of his is "AVID grabs kids by the emotional throat and shakes them till the best in them falls out." Larry was just like that--he grabbed me and shook me and brought out the best, too. Larry lives a semi-retired life in his old hometown of Mena, Arkansas.

Thank you, Marge; thank you, Walt; and thank you, Larry. You made me who I am today.

1 comment:

  1. Response from Marge Dickinson:
    Hi Maryellen,
    I am blushing.

    Phil called and said you wanted a picture - I do have one – attached – that is the last one I am having taken. I told Sue it would be my obit picture. My goodness, I am so amazed at how great I was back in our early days of teaching after reading your notes and we did have a lot of fun, didn’t we? I remember the crazy things, singing at assemblies, homecoming fun, and the wonderful times sitting in the teachers’ lounge hanging out and laughing – with Thelma Davis pounding on the wall when we got too exuberant.

    And I remember what a great teacher you were – when you and Nancy got into some set-to’s over the correct way to teach English. It’s funny that Sue teaches the way you did, heavy on the basics with a lot of creativity. I have read your blog and it is terrific. I remember starting one somewhere and then chickening out.

    And guess what – the Galva Arts Council is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. I think you were gone by the time it started in 1989, but it is still going strong. It could be stronger but it is terrific for a small town with no pros on the board, but a lot of devoted people.

    Stay in touch old friend. I have missed you and thought of you many many times.