While it’s important to find leaders who mentor and provide guidance when starting any pursuit, it is especially true in education. It is my pleasure to write about one such individual who has been a source of inspiration to me for almost forty years. If you already know Nancy Wheeler, you probably look up to her as a person or educator. If you’ve never met Nancy before, it brings me great joy to introduce her.
I first met Nancy when I was doing my student teaching at Pine Hill School in 1983-84. In those days, unless you had experience working in schools, student teachers did not have any on the job training until their fifth year of schooling. (I’m glad to see that this practice has changed because earlier educational opportunities make far more sense.)
Since student teachers were assigned a master teacher, a college student had no idea if that educator would become a source of inspiration or a complete dud. I hit the lottery when it came to master teachers.
I spent most of my student teaching year with a fabulous role model and teacher, Cynthia Van Vleck, in her sixth-grade classroom. She held the unusual position of teaching principal. From the first hour in her classroom, it was clear I was watching a master of the craft. She was a charismatic and talented teacher who could hold an audience’s attention. I modeled much of my teaching style based on her approach—firm, fair, and consistent. While always remaining in control, she wasn’t afraid to have fun with her students. We were a good match in that respect.
Partway through my student teaching year, it was time to switch classrooms. Current practice now involves teachers splitting their placements equally, usually going to a different school. In my experience, I walked a few doors down and went from sixth-grade to second-grade for the next three weeks.
Nancy Wheeler had a different teaching style than Cynthia but was equally effective. Nancy modeled her approach after famed educator, Madeline Hunter. Hunter’s model gained such acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s that it became known as the Madeline Hunter Teaching Method. While space doesn’t allow me to go into great depth here, her approach encouraged teachers to follow the same seven-step procedure whenever teaching a lesson. Much of what I had learned until then was that the teacher largely disseminated information to students. One key element I learned from Nancy was the use of student collaboration.
As someone who was still finding his way, the biggest takeaway for me was that there was more than one way to be an effective teacher. Cynthia and Nancy were two of the best teachers I saw during my thirty-one-year career. What luck for me to meet them at such an impressionable age!
While Nancy was one of those leaders who influenced my teaching, she also was a role model. Watching her interact with other people, I thought, I want to be like that. She was kind, sensitive, and genuinely concerned about everyone she encountered.
After several years of teaching, she moved into administration and became one of my first principals. Not everyone makes that transition smoothly, but Nancy was a skilled leader right from the get-go. She was supportive and relished the opportunity to take over a classroom for a period or two so that a teacher could leave and observe another educator.
I was hardly the only one Nancy inspired. She had this same effect on her students and many of my colleagues. I saw her reach some of the most challenging kids, who had a mountain of dysfunction to overcome. She won them over with her caring and compassionate manner. She showed in her actions that she was always in their corner. They did not want to let her down—neither did I.
Another quality that made Nancy unique was that she would do whatever it took to help a family out. She did it with great sensitivity and never for any other reason than to be a caring human. Behind the scenes, Nancy provided clothing, food, and hope to the most down and out. She would give a ride to a needy parent to the Food Bank or help a student who lacked adequate clothing feel special by taking him/her on a shopping trip to a nearby clothing store. Most people were unaware because she did it discreetly.
Nancy could reach any audience, whether it be children or adults. One of my favorite stories to tell about her involves a school assembly regarding earthquake safety. We live near a fault, and earthquakes occur with great frequency in our area. Discussing earthquake preparedness is hardly an exciting topic for children, but leave it to Nancy Wheeler to come up with the perfect way to capture and hold their attention.
When we had a school assembly, the approximately three hundred students from K-6th grades would gather in the multipurpose room, sitting on an uncomfortable, hard floor. The multipurpose room also served as the school’s lunchroom. After lunch, the custodian cleaned and folded up the tables to move them out of the way.
On this occasion, a lunch table was situated curiously at the front of the room to start the assembly. What was it doing there? Nancy had a plan.
Nancy told the assembled students that she needed some volunteers. Talk about leading bees to honey. Dozens of excited hands went into the air.
“Pick me, Mrs. Wheeler!” shouted one.
“I’ll do it,” yelled another.
“I never get picked,” lamented a third.
One of the funniest things about elementary school children is they volunteer enthusiastically without knowing what they’re signing up for. Never mind if the job involved picking up trash or sweeping the cafeteria. It was all about getting chosen.
Nancy scanned the sea of hopeful faces and picked eight children. She often selected some of the most disruptive children because she was wise enough to understand that these were the kids you wanted on your side during a demonstration. They would usually rise to the occasion when put in a position of responsibility.
Nancy directed the eight to crawl under the lunch table. Every face in the audience wondered what her intentions were.
She launched into the topic of the day—earthquake safety. She described the duck and cover procedure and the importance of protecting yourself from falling objects. The kids needed to understand that they would be safer under the table. But how to prove that point?
She stepped out of her low-heeled shoes and climbed onto the lunch table in her bare feet. The faces in the room told it all. What is she doing? I’ve never seen an adult climb up on a table before.
All the while, she was talking into a microphone as every eyeball in the room focused on her.
“You must get under the table as quickly as possible,” she began. “But that’s not enough to keep you safe. Once you’re under the table, hang onto the legs.” The children cooperated instantly, reaching out for the nearest leg. “An earthquake can be strong, but you’ll be safe. Let me show you.”
Much to everyone’s amazement, she began jumping on the table as the kids below held on for dear life. Laughter filled the room. No one could believe that the principal was jumping around on top of the table to emphasize her point.
I was teaching sixth-grade that year, so my class was seated near the back. We were in hysterics because the scene was so comical. It was the least possible thing anyone expected.
Precisely at that moment, a man I had never met before walked into the room, scanned the scene, and asked in bewilderment, “What’s going on?”
“Earthquake safety procedures,” I said, between laughs.
“Where is the principal?” asked the man with a disapproving look.
I could hardly contain myself, so I merely pointed to the lady who was still jumping on top of the table, much to the children’s delight.
After Nancy left our school, she continued to serve children for another decade in another district. She became a teacher in the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program. Sadly, Nancy understood that these children’s needs were often not met in the traditional school setting.
I have no way of knowing how many children she touched over the years, but her impact was indisputable. Nancy continued to volunteer and work in schools until the age of seventy-nine.
It was a pleasure to talk to Nancy about her educational experiences. I learned that she recently had a visit with one of her former students. What’s so remarkable about that, you may wonder? The backstory tells everything about what kind of impression Nancy made on her students. Her former pupil, now sixty-four years old, was a student for whom she held high expectations. Unfortunately, he became involved with drugs at one point, and his life took a turn for the worse. Nancy did not give up on him. Over the years, he had remained in contact with her and has since cleaned up his life. The part of the story I found most endearing was how Nancy had also maintained a relationship with her student’s father through the years. When her student visited, he brought his ninety-one-year-old dad along.
When I thought about writing this post, it occurred to me that the missing piece was learning who might have influenced Nancy when she became a teacher. She lit up when I asked her about her early role models in education.
Nancy’s first job was under the leadership of a principal named Myrtle Payne. Nancy taught 5th-6th grade in her first year, teaching at a small rural school in Feather Falls, California. Myrtle had just been hired as principal in the school as the unruly kids had run off the last several administrators. In addition to serving as the school’s 7th-8th grade teacher, Myrtle was the school’s principal.
Nancy described Myrtle as a strong, self-assured woman from the deep south, who would not take any guff from disrespectful middle schoolers. She remembered Myrtle immediately asserting herself with the students. The students were no longer going to run amok. Myrtle got in their faces with her no-nonsense approach.
One of the most significant changes Myrtle made was that she wanted the kids to have pride in their school. Before taking the job, she insisted that the school board apply a fresh coat of white paint to the school. Rather than have children sit idly at recess when they got in trouble, Myrtle put them to work. She used some of her eighth-grade boys to dig up the hard ground around the school. Myrtle directed the students to plant flower beds to beautify the school. While the school’s outside appearance began to transform, the general feeling inside the walls also changed. Myrtle gave the students stability and order.
Nancy and her husband, Joe, were always active in the community. One year, the basketball coach from our local university took the team to Taiwan to play some exhibition games. He wanted the student-athletes to have some spending money for the upcoming trip. He asked Joe and Nancy to put the guys to work, but the Wheelers became far more than employers. They became role models and surrogate parents for these young men.
Nancy shared one funny anecdote about how she and Joe invited the players to their home for an Easter dinner. Many of these young men had never experienced anything like this from their days in the inner city. Before dinner, Nancy remembered how they held an Easter egg hunt for the college students. She chuckled in delight, recalling that day, remembering how much fun those “big kids” had while competing to find eggs.
To fully appreciate Nancy’s commitment, one must understand that she goes all-in when it comes to helping others. A decade later, she still checks up on, counsels, and provides guidance to these grown men should they need it.
For more than a decade, I rarely saw Nancy. She may not have been with me physically, but her teachings and wisdom remained. One of the lessons she always communicated to her students was, “The greatest gift is the gift of yourself.” Those were more than mere words for Nancy. She has lived them with her heart of gold.
Now, she has reentered my life again. About a year and a half ago, I joined a writer’s group that Nancy has been a part of for more than thirty years. Now I get to see her each week and read about some of her delightful school memories. She is a teacher of teachers and one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.
I am so grateful to call Nancy Wheeler my friend. People like her remind me that we share a responsibility to our students, colleagues, and the teaching profession. When we look at ourselves as part of a continuum of student learning, we pass on that passion and positive energy to future educators. It is a privilege that we should not take lightly.