Good teaching is timeless, and two educators prove it, although each followed a different path to the classroom.
Today and next Sunday, one veteran and one newly minted teacher share their best lessons.
Annice Wetzel has taught high school French for 35 years. First-year instructor Shelley Sanders teaches math and social studies to fifth-graders.
Both say their care for students extends beyond the classroom, where helping children decide who they are becomes the true goal.
When a lawn mower chewed up Annice Wetzel’s foot, it mangled her dream of a dance career.
Good grades in French class seemed to point to another talent, though, and now she is the longest-serving teacher in the Columbia School District, having spent 35 years teaching the language at Hickman High School.
“If you told me I was going to be a teacher at 16, I would have spit on you,” Wetzel said, although her mother taught French in her hometown of Louisiana, Mo.
Though students, technology and education have changed over time, Wetzel’s love of teaching has not.
At age 57, she’s quick to point out that she’s not the oldest teacher in the district.
When she was hired at Hickman in 1969, Wetzel, who was then 22, said there was intense competition for jobs. She said the school district was looking for teachers, typically women, who would stay longer than the three years it took their husbands to complete law school or medical school at MU. Because she had a husband working in Columbia, Wetzel was seen as a good prospect for stability.
Wetzel remembers getting up at 4 a.m. to work on lesson plans her first year. She said teaching gets easier after several years. But she still remembers the challenge of her first year.
“Nothing you do can prepare you for the daily grind of reality,” Wetzel said.
Her first year, Wetzel taught the audio-lingual method like every other French teacher in the district. Students would memorize 20 sentences and spout them back. In teaching French 2 and 3, however, she noticed none of her students retained any of the language. She said that was when she realized the current method didn’t work, so for her second year, she tried something new. Academic freedom in the district let Wetzel throw out the old textbook and partner with other area French teachers to develop the “Cahier,” which means “notebook.”
The book bypasses rote memorization and instead focuses on activities and exercises designed to teach students basic nouns and verbs they’ll remember.
The district’s French teachers still gather Friday afternoons on their own time to chat and discuss how to better teach the language.
Wetzel said her workload hasn’t decreased since her first year. She’s witnessed Hickman change from six classes a day to the current seven, a change she said seemed to make time shrink. Teachers used to gather at lunch to chat and share recipes, but that tradition came to an end.
Wetzel blames at least part of the increasing amounts of work on the ever-growing mass of paperwork common in an age of standardized assessments and computers. A poster on the bulletin board behind her desk proclaims, “Technology should not require a learner’s permit.”
“I’ve seen the dawn of technology,” Wetzel said. “I used to do grades with a hand-adding machine. It was a big deal when we got calculators. I still have my first calculator. It has big buttons. I like it.”
Wetzel’s philosophy is that computers don’t actually make teaching easier. They just generate more paperwork while making people feel they can’t do the task as perfectly. Back in the old days, she said, things were more easygoing.
Wetzel defends her dot matrix printer, saying it’s reliable. And she has about 10 other printers reserved for spare parts just in case. Over the top of her whiteboard hangs a sign from her printer, hand-colored by a student while serving time in detention, proclaiming Soyez Le Bienvenu — welcome.
The questionnaire she gives to students the first day of school is printed on the same machine because she believes it’s silly to retype when she can simply revise.
Her first computer, an Apple IIe, is still in her classroom, sitting on a desk just inside the door. Students use it to run an old program that helps them memorize verbs.
In her 35 years at Hickman, Wetzel has seen waves of both students and trends, big and small. For instance, she said students aren’t as good at rote memorization. She’s also noticed a decrease in overt drug use among students, she said.
Wetzel said it’s heartbreaking to watch students whose lives don’t turn out well.
“It’s about the kids. If you only did it for the subject matter, it’d be pretty scary and unrewarding,” she said.
A student of Wetzel’s from eight years ago invited her to her wedding, and as a gift Wetzel gave her the French story the girl had written in class. She had it illustrated by a current art student and laminated. Wetzel received a note from her that said, “Although I don’t necessarily remember what I said to you when I was 16 years old, I definitely remember that you listened.”
Shooting for the 40-year retirement benefits and still “really enjoying” teaching, Wetzel said she doesn’t see herself leaving the district.
For her, the profession’s lessons are simple:
“Rest and eat well, take time for yourself, and love what you do. That’s it.”