Making the classroom connection

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Margaret Plevak | May 14, 2017

DELAVAN — Eighth-grade teacher Deb Amici is in her 30th year at St. Andrew School in Delavan, and 2017 marks her 39th year as a Catholic school teacher.

A Catholic school alumna, Amici was inspired by her sixth-grade teacher — who also was her aunt — to become an educator. But to this daughter of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, dairy farmers and the mother of two adult daughters, the classroom always felt familiar, like coming home.

“Even when I was young, playing with my cousins and siblings, I played school and I was the teacher,” she said. “I know it may sound corny, but I think I had a calling.”

Learn a lesson or two from this slice of life with Amici:

Religious education

One of the things missing in our world is spiritual growth. We're so focused on physical health, but I don't think we focus enough on the spiritual growth. Our kids are the future, our hope. It's really important for them to have a solid moral foundation, and religious schools give that. There's so much choice here in Delavan. You have a city of 8,000 and you have Delavan Christian School, Our Redeemer, St. Andrew.

As an adult, I realized there's so much more to my spiritual life. I went through a period of five years where I lost a lot of people in my life: my mom, my grandma, my husband's mom, his brother, my sister-in-law, and then I lost my husband. Without my faith and my spiritual growth, I don't know if I could have gotten through all of that.

In the classroom

I loved the whole idea of school, even school shopping — getting new pencils and notebooks. I love the whole process of getting my room ready, anticipating the students. I like the change. I like the interaction with the kids, getting to know them. I try to guide them. If anything, I probably learn more from my kids than I probably teach them. 

Student teachers

I've had students in my life inspire me. My very first year of teaching I was 21, and I had a student in sixth grade at Saints Andrew and Thomas in Potosi. From third grade on, she had cancer. To this day, I still think of her and how she changed my life. She lost one of her legs and she came to me one day and told me she needed to go to the bathroom and needed me to go with her. She wanted me to take her prosthetic leg off because it was hurting her. I asked if she would show me how, and she told me sure, it was easy to do. That bonded us.

She just amazed me. She would jump rope on one leg. She would play basketball. To be so young and have something like that happen to you, and yet you still find joy in life — that's inspiring.

All grown up

We have a preschool upstairs, so I've watched some of the kids grow up. It's amazing. It's not just that they've gotten taller or mastered algebra or they can show me more on a computer than I can teach them. For me, teaching students grades five through eight — I get to have them every year for social studies — the growth I see is phenomenal. That connection you make with them is great, and then sometimes you'll stay connected. Right now I'm teaching the son of a student — the mom — that I taught. She jokes with me that we need to have our 30- year reunion. Now I have children (of my students). Someone was teasing me that pretty soon I'll be teaching the grandchildren. It's a beautiful thing to see that they want their children to have a Catholic education, that faith foundation.

Our graduates stop in and say hi. They'll come in the classroom and give my eighth-graders advice, like — this is an old joke — make sure if someone at the high school tries to sell you an elevator pass you know that there's no elevator. Or they'll say, “Make sure you know how to take notes. Note-taking is really important.”

Changing times

I remember when I first started, at Sacred Heart School in Sun Prairie, I had 35 sixth-graders in my room. And the other sixth grade had 35. Our desks were in nice little rows. When the kids were in the hallway, they walked in rows and you could hear a pin drop. My middle schoolers aren't like that. They're like a pack. When they walk down the hall, they spread across the hall.

Because society and family structures have changed, the needs of students have changed — their learning needs and even their emotional needs. If students' emotional needs are not being met, they're not going to be able to come to school and learn. That's why it's really important to let the child know that you respect and care about him, especially middle schoolers.

Teaching self-worth

When I was growing up, some teachers would take the time to work with you and some wouldn't. They were like, “Well, why can't you get math?” I always wanted the kids to have self-esteem, no matter what their struggles. I want them to know everybody has struggles, strengths and weaknesses. But I believe in a strong work ethic — that's probably the Midwesterner farm girl in me. With determination, you can achieve whatever you want.

Parents and teachers

I've had struggles with parents who might think I'm too tough or demanding, but all the years I've been here, I've felt valued, respected by the community, the parents. There's this connection here of working with the teacher. Parents want the best for their child and that's what I want. Sometimes you need to sit down and talk. It's OK to disagree or have a different viewpoint. But always, the child needs to come first.

One thing I've learned is we don't ever know what's exactly going on at home in that child's life or that parent's life, what they're struggling with. I realized that because my husband had cancer for 15 years and I knew my girls, from an early age — third and fifth grade – were living with that. I don't know what those parents are dealing with. I also don't know how they were parented. Because we end up parenting kind of like how our parents parented us.

Life lessons

We never know how we can touch each other's lives, make a difference. In teaching, I feel like I can touch a lot of lives and then hopefully, they'll go out in the world and they'll be the ones to make our world better. That's what really enlightens and inspires me — the hope and dreams of what they can do.

A full schedule

I teach history, geography and religion. This year I’ve taught language arts, reading. When I first started, I taught at Saints Andrew and Thomas in Potosi and we taught everything—music, gym.

Favorite subject

I love teaching history and geography because we learn so much in history about the way we should live our lives, and we can learn from the mistakes. And I like the storytelling. If you look at history as stories, we each have our own history and our own story to tell, and I think we can make connections that way.

Living history

Since the honor flights started, I encourage my students to go up to a veteran and thank them for their service. We were able to do that on our annual trip to Washington, D.C. At the Holocaust Museum, we met a volunteer who was actually a survivor. He was a very quiet man, but he explained how he had to go into hiding when he was 5 years old. That’s what makes history come alive for the kids, not just these stories about people who are no longer with us.

What I’m finding as time goes on, some of the kids don’t know information on certain topics that I maybe lived through. I remember spending time with my grandma, talking to her about living through the Great Depression. I always encourage my students to talk to their grandparents because they lived that history. In history books, we read about General MacArthur or FDR, but there were ordinary people who lived and struggled through those events, too.

That’s also why I like to teach history because through reading novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or a memoir like “Farewell to Manzanar” about the Japanese internment camps, you see the human side. Sometimes in a history book, you only see the factional, information side. When I take the kids to Washington, D.C., I read them the story of the six boys at Iowa Jima who raised the flag. Some of the kids don’t realize that one of them is from Antigo, Wisconsin. He wrote “Flags of Our Fathers.”  Telling those kinds of stories makes that human connection—something that sometimes gets lost in the world we live in.

I’ll say to them, This is what I grew up with.  I remember my brother having 8-track cassettes. I tell them, look at what you have now, but do you ever wonder what your children will have? How will they listen to music or what will television be like or the world that you live in?

High tech and handwriting

When I was growing up, everything was memorizing—like dates—and you spit it out. Now kids can Google something and look it up in a few seconds. That part has changed. Technology was a scary thing for me, but now I use my SMARTboard. I still think you need that human touch.

I’m a stickler on cursive handwriting and the kids are like, “Mrs. A., come on. Why?” I tell them that cursive handwriting is really good for left-right brain thinking. It’s good for creativity and, when you’re taking notes, you can actually write faster. But we have ipads, and I think eventually we’ll be getting Chromebooks. Still, you’re always going to have to know how to sign your name—or I’m hoping you do. I don’t know.

Role models

Being the eighth-grade teacher, my students are the big dogs. They are the leaders. They are the role models and I want them to realize that. That those little kindergarteners that they’re prayer buddies with look up to them, admire them and want to emulate them. It’s truly a family.

Spiritual learning

The kids will talk about going to Mass and tell me it’s kind of boring. I said, “Kind of look at it as you go to someone’s birthday party. You don’t go to someone’s birthday party to be fully entertained. Think of all the gifts God’s given you and you’re going there to spend time with God and to feel surrounded by God’s love.”

We are a bit losing that connection with going to church, that being important. Are you using the gifts that God’s given you? We have a service learning program, and our middle schoolers do service hours to the community, their school, their parish, helping out a neighbor. Teaching people to be kind and acts of kindness, I think we need more of that.


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