CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
While most teachers will be refilling their marker supplies and stapling multiplication facts to their classroom walls this back-to-school season, Patti Black will be going on bike rides, trips with her family and crafting cards.
For 43 years, Black shepherded 5-year-old souls at St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva. Her tenure as a kindergarten teacher came to a close at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
When friends ask her how she is enjoying retirement, she replies, right now, “I’m on summer break.”
As summer ends and a new school year begins, Black will rely on friends and family to keep busy, and reflect on — instead of prepare for — her days in the classroom.
Over the years, the 5-year-olds who entered her classroom’s threshold in the fall could not read or write. By May and June, they would be writing five-word stories, drawing narrative pictures, and naming their favorite books. Teaching kids to read was one of the greatest rewards of her job, she said.
This past year, her students loved the story Pete the Cat, Black’s own favorite children’s tale, so much that they wrote and published their own version to commemorate her last year as a kindergarten teacher: Pete the Cat and the Best Teacher Ever.
Each student wrote a page in the book, which included a short story about themselves. Receiving that parting gift was a great way to end the school year and her teaching career.
Teaching is all at once a beautiful vocation, awesome experience and great responsibility, she said. Imbuing life lessons and elementary skills in kindergartners is not an easy task.
“It’s the most awesome responsibility, you have a huge responsibility, I just thanked my parents all the time for letting me be part of their child’s educational and faith journey.”
Black hopes that beyond reading skills, the greatest lesson her students learned in her classroom was to treat other people as Jesus would want them to.
“At the end of the day, can you say that you helped everybody have a good day? Not just you — did everyone have a good day because you were part of their life.”
As for her own faith, Black explained that after teaching religion as part of the curriculum, over the years, “I took it a lot more to heart. I internalized it as part of my life.”
Not only did Black teach at St. Frances de Sales, she also attends the parish, and frequently saw her students at Sunday Mass.
“I was their first avenue to teach them about Mass,” she said.
Mothers of her students would approach her on Sunday and share how their child acted so differently once they noticed their teacher in the pews. “That was always a good sign,” she said.
During her long tenure at the parish and school, Black saw generations of families go through her classroom and cites what an honor it was to teach her students’ children in her latter teaching years.
Her final week of school this past June “was so exciting and so sad, and so stressful that I gave myself shingles.” Yet the school community was then, and always has been, there to support and celebrate with her.
Being entrusted with the formation and education of young souls is both a blessing and an all-consuming job, she said. “It’s a job that you don’t leave at the door, it comes home with you. They become your kids.”
So how can parents of students or friends of teachers offer more support to teachers? A $5 gift card to Target or Starbucks goes a long way. And even more, “A thank you card. That means the most.”
Sorting through cards she collected throughout the years, Black said, seeing those old thank you notes reminds her that after hard days in the classroom, you just need a boost.
“A note like that comes, and it’s like a little message from God.”
For teachers early in their career, she emphasizes the importance of drinking coffee and listening to your students. “They can drive your learning and your teaching.”
Even though she will not be managing her old classroom at St. Francis de Sales, Black will always be a teacher. Her Target runs are no longer about collecting pencils and folders for her students, instead, now, “I’m going to use all that energy to fill backpacks to donate to the kids that need school supplies,” she said.
“Teachers, we’re just drawn to that kind of stuff. I will just channel it in a new way.”