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It’s Never Too Late to Say Thank You

September 12th, 2012

By Gloria Johnston, Linda Kolbusz-Kosan, and Patricia Chamberlain

By the time we finished our two-year master’s degree program in bilingual/bicultural education at NIU in 1980, the three of us had become best friends. Over the next 30-plus years, we not only continued to grow our friendship as two of us left Illinois and moved around the country (Gloria to California and Linda to Nebraska and Georgia), but we published together, spoke at state and national conferences, presented at workshops, and even worked together in the same school districts.

In late 2009 while having dinner together and catching up on the stories about each others’ families and professional experiences, Linda mentioned that she had tracked down one of our favorite professors from our M.S. program at NIU, Dr. Mary Louise Seguel. Dr. Seguel had made a lasting impression on us that began from our first time in class with her to the several weekends that she invited us to her home for lunch. The invitations were based on an encouragement for us to write a professional article about our teaching; because she was determined we would be published before we graduated. Although the three of us believed we were experienced bilingual teachers when we entered the master’s degree program, Dr. Seguel consistently challenged our thinking about teaching and learning and pushed us share our experiences and ideas with others via presentations and publications.

The three of us met at the airport in Seattle in December 2009, and on the first day there we went to Mary Louise’s home for lunch. She was 94 years young and she lived in a charming cottage on the same property with her son and his family. Her home was filled with books, a grand piano, art, memories, a busy desk/computer station, and a kitchen that was used to make 12 loaves of bread at a time, from scratch. We spent several hours catching up on each others’ lives and the three of us drove back to our hotel room saying, “She is still giving us assignments!”

The next day we took her out to lunch and continued our professional dialog about teaching and learning, and more specifically about balancing content proficiency with instructional strategies when preparing teachers. The question she had given us the day before was, “Where is the handbook of methods these days for new teachers?” She then gave us a white paper she had written and asked us to help her find a graduate student who would be interested in doing a research project with her, and/or a publisher for her article.

When we flew home the following day, we marveled at the rare opportunity we had to say “thank you” to a great teacher and mentor who had a long-term impact on our professional and personal lives. We only wish that others could have the same incredible experience.

As we reflected together on some of the lessons learned from Dr. Seguel, two themes emerged for us. She really knew her students! We will always remember how she differentiated our instruction by providing books based on our interests, and the knowledge and questions she provided to stimulate our professional inquiry. Additionally, we now realized how important her efforts were in building a community of learners and that we would continue to rely on each other, professionally and personally, to support our work over many, many years.

Response from Dr. Mary Louise Seguel

Your visit with me was magical, and I haven’t quite recovered. I never cease to marvel how wonderfully well all of you have developed your talents and taken your place in the world. Far too few teachers, even when well earned, have the experience you have given me. And, in addition, you are prepared to enter into my concerns and interests.

Your story about the visit is a little gem of conveying the impression well, and its various themes are engaging. The theme of appreciation for the help teachers have given freely, the theme of remaining vital and engaged even after aging, the theme of continuing to maintain the same responsible attitude toward education and its impact on children and youth that one has always had in the teeth of opposition from many quarters…all are valuable and well expressed in your story.

The very essence of teaching is that of empowering the learner to become not only a constant learner, but an independent thinker as well, in effect outstripping the teacher who got him or her started. Not that the teacher needs to be thanked, but that appreciation is a sort of fine perfume that enhances both the teacher and taught.

As to aging, the Christian Science Monitor magazine recently ran a cover story on aging world-wide, and with copious data and examples, has pointed out the growing number of folks who have reached the 100 mark still clear of mind, getting around physically, and continuing to bring their wisdom to bear on themselves and the world around them. So much for whining by the aged about boredom, uselessness, and irritation with their limitations!

As to the third theme, I guess it gets in your blood. I continue to deplore that misguided initiative called No Child Left Behind which judged without providing an iota of help, a little like your doctor saying regretfully, “You really have it bad, tsk, tsk” and walking away. I am distressed that our profession continues to rely on creativity and artfulness (essential, but insufficient qualities for teachers) and neglects a systematic effort on our part to make it mean what old Bobbitt called, not only “the life of work” but “the work of life” for our learners, who are under our care for the best part of their days, for at least 12 years, and far too often, waste a lot of it. We, as a profession, with some examples, notable because they are so few, are still plodding along with curriculum, programming, methods, and learning sites resembling us a century ago.

—Gloria L. Johnston; B.S. and M.S. Northern Illinois University, Ph.D. University of Illinois at Chicago; retired superintendent of schools, residing in San Diego, California

—Linda M. Kolbusz-Kosan; B.S. and M.S. Northern Illinois University; consultant, residing in Palatine, Illinois

—Patricia Chamberlain; B.S. University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana and M.S. Northern Illinois University; consultant, residing in Elgin, Illinois

—Dr. Mary Louise Seguel, professor emeritus, Northern Illinois University

Read more about Dr. Mary Louise Seguel (including her bread recipe!)

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