Jeanne shared with me her experiences and her vision of education. Here is Jeanne's story.
Did you have any other career dreams or did you know from an early age that you wanted to be a teacher?
At an early age, I wanted to be an actress but my mom wouldn’t let me go to California. I wanted to go to Pepperdine University because that’s where "Battle of the Network Stars" was being filmed.
After my dreams were dashed, I decided to go to Niagara University, and I tried Hotel Management until I realized that I had to work weekends. Then I transferred to the theater department, where I did one show. We did "Oklahoma" at Artpark. However, I transferred again to the education department, and I found my true calling. Then I had to move back home and transfer to Buffalo State College because Niagara University was too expensive.
I graduated from Buff State in 1992 and got a job at Holy Cross Head Start in the city of Buffalo. I was a teacher in a pre-K classroom, and I absolutely loved it. I worked there for four years, and I learned an awful lot about the difference in cultures. It was a multicultural environment. I learned about life outside of Grand Island. I also developed an interest in working with students with special needs while I was working at Head Start. When I was working at Head Start, I went to get my master’s degree in special education at Buff State.
After that, I worked at LaSalle Middle School in Niagara Falls as a special ed teacher. It was a difficult jump because I just had my second daughter five weeks before school started. I had a brand new baby and a three year old and I had jumped from pre K to sixth grade. While I was in the Falls, it opened my eyes again to inner city life and the struggles that students and families have. I was able to work with a lot of families that had domestic violence issues and families that lived in poverty.
And I worked with students that were illiterate. In middle school, they couldn’t read or write at more than the first grade level. They felt like the forgotten kids because nobody seemed to care about them, not even their own families. They were kind of on their own. It was very sad. Many of them turned to violence or other inappropriate behaviors to find where they could fit in. So I became their mom at school. I would make them cookies, feed them breakfast, give them any kind of encouragement that they needed to find out that they were valued and had worth.
One of the things that we did was that we would close the classroom door when we did reading lessons because the kids were embarrassed. But they worked hard for me because they knew that I cared. I was the only one who had full attendance on half days because they knew that I would feed them breakfast. So those two experiences made me the educator that I am today because I learned so much about life and that there’s more to students than just test scores. We have to look at the whole student and nurture the whole student and not just focus on the academics. I worked in Niagara Falls for four years.
The next step in my journey was putting my love of theater and teaching together. I was doing the musical, “Mame,” at Niagara Falls Little Theater. Frank Cannata was the accompanist. At the time, he was the principal at Sidway. So we got to talking, and he told me that they were having a big recruitment day on Grand Island for teachers. So I went. While I loved my career in Niagara Falls, my heart was in Grand Island because I grew up there.
I got hired in 2001. My first year was when September 11th happened, and that was terrible. I was teaching first grade at Sidway Elementary School. I’ll never forget my first year for many reasons. The biggest was the jump from eighth grade inner city to first grade suburb. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of parental support on Grand Island because I had none in the Falls. It took me a while to understand the idea that the parents here want to help the kids. That was a huge difference. I was an island of one for four years. Grand Island is more of a community learning experience. I was at Sidway for two years. I piloted the inclusion program there. It was a kindergarten inclusion class. At the time, there was a self-contained class, and the kids were ready to be integrated into an inclusive setting. There was no classroom available for them. The program is still going strong. However, I got transferred to Huth after the initial year of the inclusion program. I was at Sidway for two years.
How do you feel about teaching at Huth Road School?
Well, I went to Huth Road school as a child so I was thrilled to return as a teacher. I loved Sidway but when you get to the new experience, you love that, too. I was a second grade teacher for seven years. I liked how excited the kids were to learn new things, and the content starts to get a little more involved and just watching them grow. It’s a big growth year from second to third. An opportunity came up to switch grades with another teacher. So I came to third grade. I absolutely, positively love third grade. The students have a desire for learning, and they get my corny jokes. My motto is a day without laughter is a day wasted. Part of my personal mission is to nurture the entire child and foster a love of learning. Kids are more than just test scores, and watching them learn new things is indescribable. It makes me happy. I also try to remind them that there is a bigger world than Grand Island, so we try to give back to the community as much as possible.
How do you and your class give back to the community?
We make fleece blankets for Project Linus in the spring. At Christmas, we donate to various charities, instead of a teacher gift. In the past, we’ve donated to the SPCA and to Children’s Hospital. One year, we donated a Target gift card to a family that lost everything in a fire. At the end of the year, my hope is that my students leave third grade remembering how much they enjoyed school, loved learning new things, and are ready to take on whatever fourth grade or the world throws at them with a smile.
What gives you the most joy as a teacher?
There’s a lot of things that give me joy. One is when they accidentally call me Mom. Another is that spark in their eyes when they get what I’m teaching or when we have a dance party.
Describe a typical day in school.
Students come in and get to their morning work. They each have jobs assigned, so they work on their jobs. Agenda checker, lunch counter, calendar person, things like that. After announcements, we start our day with math. Then we transfer into writer’s workshop, which they love more than math. After writers workshop, we have our special for the day and lunch. After lunch, we always have a read aloud, which is my favorite time of day. Currently, we are reading Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The kids are amazed by how life was different in the late 1800s than it is today. For example, in the story, Laura and Mary in their stocking got one penny, a candy cane, a tin cup, and a pastry, and they were thrilled. The kids were like, “What?” It was funny. No electronics?
After that, we have literacy stations, where the kids work in small groups with the teacher or independently on a variety of literacy skills. I think that’s their favorite. They really like that time. When we can’t do literacy stations, they are disappointed. We follow that up with free time because it is so important for the kids to have a chance to unwind and just play. They work so hard during the day. I think that kids really need play to learn social skills, turn taking, and how to get along with others. We end the day with our social studies or science unit, which is currently Egypt and simple machines.
What have you observed in the students in the course of this school year?
I have observed lots of growth in a variety of areas, both academic and social. They’re not the same little kids that they were when they started in September. Now they tell me corny jokes. They’ve really developed strong relationships with each other, and they truly enjoy coming to school every day.
What afterschool activities do you coordinate?
I am the team captain of Huth’s Heroes. I started being the captain five years ago when my dad passed away from bladder cancer. I wanted to do something to honor his memory and to give back to the community. We have about fifteen team member. We involve the students by having a mini relay, where we raise money for Relay for Life and the playground fund. I find relay very inspiring to listen to the stories of the survivors. Watching the survivor lap brings me to tears every year. I also love the luminaria lighting ceremony and how the track looks when it is lit with the luminaria bags. We’ve been a silver or bronze team for the last five years.
What do you like to do when you’re not at school?
I am active at St. Martin in the Fields, and I sing in the choir. In the past, I directed the annual Christmas pageant for twelve years. I am active with the St. Stephens Parish Players. You can see me as a plate in "Beauty and the Beast" this weekend. This is my third show with them. Being a plate is liberating. I get to dance and sing and be silly.
What would you like to tell parents?
I would first like to tell parents how much I appreciate their support for their children and much I truly care about their kids. I always tell my parents and the kids that, once you’re mine, you’re mine forever. I want to hear about all of their successes. Keep bringing me birthday cupcakes. And I just want to stay in touch with them. I love to hear everything they’re doing in their lives, where they’re going to college and how school is going. I will always be there for the children, even when they are not in my classroom anymore.