Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Still teaching us......even after she's gone

Yesterday, Tiersten's schoolteacher became ill at school and went home. Yesterday afternoon, she passed away unexpectedly.

Ms. Leach was the principal of Raymond Elementary for many years before retiring from that position and returning to the 1st grade classroom to finish out a long career in education. She was the only elementary principal that my boys ever knew, and we were thrilled this year that our request was granted for Tiersten to be placed in her 1st grade class. I always considered her to be an outstanding principal, but she was absolutely phenomenal in the classroom.

I still remember my first Parent's Night with Dane as a kindergartener. Ms. Leach was new to our school, and I was new to being a parent of a school-age child. She stood at the front of a large crowd, and exuded such warmth and excitement for the business of learning. In all the years that I knew her, she never lost that! I'm sure there had to be days that her job was tiring and challenging, but she always seemed so genuinely honored to be a part of my children's lives. And, as a truly great leader should, she always credited her terrific staff for the dramatic improvements that our school made while she was principal. Never once did I hear her accept well-deserved praise without passing the compliment on to her staff.

When she announced her intention to resign as principal and return to the classroom for her last few years before retirement, I was honestly skeptical. Would it be fair to a new principal to have the previous "chief" still on the premises? Could the staff accept her as a peer, rather than their leader? Could she narrow her world to the smaller arena of a classroom?

I should never have doubted her. From the day they hired the new principal (who is also fantastic), Joan was delighted to hand over the reins and begin the transition. On the first day of school last year, she was so excited to get her 20 kids in her room and re-immerse herself in the experience of a smaller group. I heard stories from her student's parents that watched with awe as she made tiny schedule changes in the curriculum that had large impacts on differing learning styles. I quickly learned to walk by her classroom slowly in the hallway, as the giggles and conversation from her students was such a happy sound of learning.

And Joan was also a class act outside the school. She was actively involved in so many areas of the community. Kiwanis......church........and so much more. Always dressed in bright, stylish colors, her blonde hair cut in a sassy style.....she was hard to miss. On Fridays, she tended to don crazy glasses or silly hats, just to make the kids laugh. In the mornings before school, and the afternoons as school let out, she was almost always in the hallway. Hugging kids that needed a little "extra," chatting with parents, and interacting. Always interacting.

Tiersten has had a phenomenal first four months of school this year. Ms. Leach was loved by the kids, but not because she let them rest on their laurels. She was there to educate.....and educate she did. At the school's request, each child in her class was told about her passing by their own family, in the manner that they chose appropriate with their own beliefs, and they gathered back as a class at the school today, with grief counselors on hand. Typical to 6 and 7-year-olds, they are saddened, but death is an abstract concept that isn't quite real.

At the moment, the community is focusing efforts on helping Joan's two young granddaughters-- both who lived with her full-time. At the request of the extended family, the school district is taking the "lead" on planning her memorial service this weekend. It will be huge and well-attended with a large meal to follow. She made us all feel like family, and we will honor her accordingly.

I spoke this evening to the retired teacher chosen to step in and substitute with Tiersten's class until decisions for the longer-term future can be made. Vivian was a long-term member of Joan's staff, was a close personal friend to Joan, was herself a phenomenal teacher, and is the perfect choice for this position at a challenging time. I can't think of anyone better to help the kids make the necessary adjustments, so that the entire first grade year doesn't become a loss of learning. Vivian was an amazing and honest presence in the classroom this morning, as the kids gathered together for the first time without their teacher. She told me this evening that she arrived at the school early this morning, grieving her close friend, and wanting to honor her in the best way possible by helping her young students understand what has happened. She had a list of things she knew she needed to get done before the class began arriving..........organize some art supplies for a grief exercise that might be helpful, find the gradebook and begin figuring out if there was anything urgent that needed addressed there, walk through the classroom and familiarize herself with student names, get a feel for the daily schedule as sticking to a routine will be comforting to the kids. And then she said that she stopped, and suddenly noticed a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. Gifts were wrapped and had been carefully placed beneath it. She thought, "No.........she couldn't have already..........." So she went closer to the tree and looked at each gift. Sure enough. Our beloved teacher had already shopped for and wrapped a Christmas gift for each child in her class. With her sudden passing, those gifts have gained so much more significance. A final act of love to her students from a teacher that always gave her all.

Even after she's gone, she's still teaching us about what it means to be a classy lady. We love you, Joan! You will be missed!!

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