Monday, May 4, 2015

Returning the Gift of Education

     Teacher Appreciation Week Featuring Jessica Balsamo – One of Monroe’s Superstars     

Returning the Gift of Education

Five-year olds are my life.  I love everything about that age.  I'm blessed to be able to spend five days each week with them in my kindergarten class at Monroe Elementary School.  I have been in the same kindergarten classroom for the past 12 years, and I couldn't be happier.  Monroe Elementary itself is a school unmatched with its amazing staff, whose mission is one of collaboration, reaching the learning targets, and fostering a true community-oriented environment.  Having the ability to teach lively little people is a bonus.

I had wanted to be a teacher all of my life.  My dad said when I was 4 years old, I would line up my dolls and teach them whatever it was they needed to learn.  As I went through school myself, that passion was only amplified.  I had the great fortune of attending school right here in Janesville with some of the most extraordinary teachers I've ever known.

When I went to kindergarten at Roosevelt Elementary School, my teacher went on maternity leave, and I had Sue Boden as my teacher.  Mrs. Boden was fantastic!  She read stories and sang songs with such expression, and she taught us to use the record player, so that a group of us could listen and follow read-along stories.  I remember vividly when she did a unit on dinosaurs and taught us songs that included characteristics of each one.  I loved her.  That summer, my parents helped me write a letter to her because I was missing her.  I was crazy with excitement when she wrote back to me.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Boden often when I had her two beautiful grandchildren, Robby and Ella, each during their kindergarten years in my class.  It was fun to have her attend Grandparents Day in my classroom as my grandmothers had attended hers.  She seemed proud of me and where I had arrived in my life, and that meant the world to me.  I was still thrilled to have the approval of Mrs. Boden.

In first grade, Cathy Casey was my smiling, sweet teacher.  Miss Casey was the most kind, gentle, compassionate person I had ever met.  She made learning vocabulary and reading complex stories exciting, having us put on plays and make costumes that fit the characters.  She had a quiet, calm personality that put us all at ease during a time of some difficult learning milestones.  She was a gem.

Miss Casey attended church at St. Mary's with one of my grandmothers, and she would often ask her through the years what I was doing and how things were going for me.  My grandma would tell me when she had seen Miss Casey and that she asked about me, and that always delighted me.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, there was Miss Casey, at her funeral, in a comforting, gentle role as she had been years ago during school.  It meant a great deal to me that she came and hugged me, telling me how wonderful my grandma was, as was my entire family.

In second grade, Mrs. Bonita Potter was my homeroom teacher, and for Spelling, I had Mrs. Yvonne Dezwarte.  Mrs. Potter taught me the word “cliffhanger,” and would implement it as she read chapters of The Boxcar Children each day.  I remember being very excited to hear what was going to happen next as she read the book during our milk break.  Mrs. Dezwarte began an excitement for me with the Spelling Bee.  We practiced our spelling list with a mock spelling bee in front of the class, and I loved it.  Spelling had been a rather easy skill for me, and these practices were a fun way for me to learn. 

I have not had any interaction with either of these ladies since I left school, but I do have fond memories of both of them during my educational career.

In third grade, I met Donna Jornby, now Donna Herzfeldt.  She was a very kind, thoughtful person who loved me, even as I started to enter an awkward age.  She gave us fun projects to do to enhance our learning and had us do activities to give each other praise and compliments.  That was a fantastic concept to me that she could encourage us to say kind things to one another when perhaps on the playground, it was a different story!  She read wonderful novels to the class, and her soft heart came out when she had to have a student finish a novel due to her tears when in the last chapter, an animal had died.  When I had a beautiful mouthful of braces followed by an attractive retainer, she helped me socially to continue to have confidence and not to worry about what others would say.  I adored her.  She also taught us patriotic songs like, "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "50 Nifty States" which taught us all of the states in alphabetical order.  She also made sure we all learned "On Wisconsin" so we would be prepared at Badger games.  That has always stayed with me.

Presently, after school, I run a program for students and an adult mentor to do activities together and build relationships.  I had the joyful experience of having Mrs. Herzfeldt attend as a mentor to some of our students at Monroe School.  It was wonderful to talk with her about time in her class and get to work with her as a fellow teacher.

My fourth grade math teacher was Susan Olson, now Susan Maine.  She was a charming, lovely lady who made me love math.  She made lessons fun and practical, relating to the real world.  I became a math nerd thanks to her.

Later, I was lucky enough to have her granddaughter, Olivia, in my class.  I loved having Ms. Maine come to Grandparent's Day, attend field trips, and come to pick Olivia up after school.  Even though I only had her class for one hour each day, she impacted me enough to give me great joy in seeing her now in my role as a teacher.

Finally, in fifth grade, Bill Williams blasted his way into my heart.  Mr. Williams was known for being loud, crazy, and a goofball.  I was intimidated to have him as I was more of a quiet type, but he quickly put my fears to rest.  He called me "JK" for my initials, Jessica Kotwitz, as he had given just about every student a nickname.  Mr. Williams got to know all of us and found ways to personalize himself to us so that it felt like a partnership rather than a dictatorship in the classroom.  There was no doubt that he was the authority, but he created a comfort level that was crucial to a class getting ready to go to an uncertain middle school experience.  Mr. Williams was surprisingly sensitive, giving hugs when needed, and being so silly that we couldn't get over it.  He knew how to teach history and science in ways that made us pay attention, and he made all learning fun.

Mr. Williams lived just down the street from my house, and he welcomed visits during the summer while he was out doing yard work.  When I was in college, I interviewed him about being a Vietnam veteran for a piece I was writing about the Vietnam War, and he won me fabulous grades and comments for his recollection of his days in the military.  My professor invited him to speak to my English Literature class to further discuss his experiences.  I was so proud. 

When I was hired as a teacher at Monroe School, Mr. Williams called my classroom phone and left me a sweet message telling me how proud he was of me.  That made my year.  When I became engaged to my husband, Mr. Williams came to school personally and brought the most heartfelt letter telling me that my husband had better be good to me.  On Halloween, he and his wonderful wife, Mary, visited my parent’s house, knowing I'll be there to see my nieces and nephews in their costumes. He continues to be a joy in my life.

Teaching isn't always easy, and the politics and policies that come with it can sometimes have negativity attached to it.  But I want to keep at the forefront that Janesville has amazing teachers in its schools.  I am living proof of the success of the teachers in this city, and I continually witness others around me who carry on the stellar behaviors of quality teachers.  I am so glad to have grown up and been in public school in Janesville, and I am incredibly thankful to teach here now.

My goals for myself as a teacher are to teach my students what they need to know to be successful, foster a community of love and kindness that will make them good citizens, and instill in them the certainty that I love and support them as my students, but also as people continuing their lives.  I hope my teachers know what a huge impact they have had in my life, and I hope to give that to my students today.

-Jessica Balsamo (Jessica Kotwitz to my teachers)

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