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Ms. Widmeyer (Gr.4 English teacher)

Ms. Widmeyer: The Decisive Element

On the wall behind Ms. Widmeyer's desk, a small yellowed poster reads: "I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom."


The poster has hung on her classroom wall for some 20-plus years. 


"It was a gift from a professor when I was in teacher's college," says Kelly Widmeyer, a teacher in Grade 4 English at the K-W Bilingual School. "It's a reminder that every single day I walk into my classroom, it is my demeanor that really sets the mood for learning that day, and that it's up to me whether a situation escalates or de-escalates. And I believe that piece of paper has really shaped who I am as a teacher."


Ms. Widmeyer also credits her father as a source of inspiration. 


"My dad is a retired university professor, so teaching has always been in my blood," says Ms. Widmeyer. "My dad is very passionate about teaching, and that's something he really showed me as he'd always come home and talk about his students and work. The other person that has played a big part is my younger brother -- he is learning challenged. And I think the amount of time I spent with him and playing school helped me develop my patience and compassion. So I believe it was the combination of my brother and my dad that made teaching such a natural career choice. In fact, I played school from a very young age, and my parents would say how I would set up a classroom with anyone in the neighbourhood I could find."


From babysitter to camp counsellor to lifeguard, practically every job Ms. Widmeyer had growing up involved working with kids. "And yet, when I graduated from university, I wasn't even thinking about teaching at that point," she says. "I took my LSATs to become a lawyer, as I was thinking about a number of different careers. Then, as I was doing a law internship I thought, 'this isn't for me.' Finally, I went to my parents and said, 'I'd like to go to teachers college.' And they said, 'You know, it's about time you came to that conclusion!'" 


After graduating from Queen's University in Kingston, Ms. Widmeyer's first teaching position was at Galt Collegiate in Cambridge. 


"I loved teaching high school," she says. "I taught English there and it was a real eye-opening experience, background-wise, working with kids and with families. Then I had an opportunity to stay there or take a position teaching Grades 7 and 8 out in New Hamburg. So I took that teaching job, and that was very different again. Along with a male teacher, we ran the Phys. Ed. program. New Hamburg was such a wonderful, close knit community to work in."


Following in her father's footsteps, Ms. Widmeyer worked for several years in the public school system. "My dad taught at KCI before going on to teach at the University of Waterloo," she says. "It was an experience I really valued, being in the public system and I know it gave me an even greater appreciation for being here at the K-W Bilingual School."


Getting hired to teach Grade 4 at the K-W Bilingual School was a homecoming, says Ms. Widmeyer. "I went to this school and graduated from K-W Bilingual, so for me, it really was like coming back home."


Among the many exceptional teachers she had over the years, Ms. Widmeyer credits Principal Monsieur Poinot for having a profound impact on her life. "He was an amazing teacher and the one who really stood out and made a difference," says Ms. Widmeyer. "And when I think back on those positive experiences I had as a student, it wasn't always classroom-related. Monsieur Poinot was my soccer coach, which inspired me to become involved in extracurricular activities. This led me to doing the volleyball team, and the Terry Fox Run, and Jump Rope for Heart. I'm involved with houses and the speech competition, and I love being a part of those things. So I think it all goes back to Monsieur Poinot and my memories of our soccer team, or the time he taught us to play broomball. And I remember how he would rescue animals and bring them into the school; I think that inspired me to bring Pepe into the class."


Pepe is a 17-year-old cockatiel, and a great asset in Ms. Widmeyer's classroom. "Pepe is such a unifying force," she explains. "She really brings us together and the kids adore Pepe. Her presence is big, and I always find out just how much Pepe is talked about at home when we have our first parents' night and how keen the parents are to meet this bird that all the kids love."


More than just a classroom pet, Pepe is also an educational tool, says Ms. Widmeyer. "I think there are so many lessons to be learned from Pepe. I think empathy is huge, along with the responsibility of taking care of a pet, and having the gentleness to do it well. We just had a conversation today where we asked the question, 'How would you feel if you were in Pepe's situation, where you were very small and had giant hands coming into your cage during Pepe's quiet time?'


"Then there's the bonding experience I see between Pepe and the kids. They understand that it's a privilege to have Pepe on their desk, and it makes them feel really special. It also teaches them about patience as they have to wait their turn. I'm also really impressed when I see how Pepe has the ability to draw shy kids out. Pepe is an amazing contributor to the classroom."


Ms. Widmeyer also sees the value of smaller class sizes. "I've had classes of 35 kids when I taught in the public system and found it really challenging to reach every student every single day," she says. "But here, I tell everyone on parents' night that I think the greatest thing about this school is that every single day in every single subject, I have the time and opportunity to speak with every single child. And that's what we're able to do here at this school -- see what the kids need, and we're able to meet those individual needs."


It was 10 years ago that Ms. Widmeyer started teaching Grade 4 at K-W Bilingual. "Having taught Grades 12 to 6, I never imagined I would be teaching students this young, but I absolutely love this age group," she says. "And what's unique about Grade 4 is, most of them are nine years old and moving on to the double digits, and how big can that be, when you hit your double digits! So it's very exciting, and they're still very young and yet they're getting so much more capable of learning new skills and becoming much more mature."


"So they still need the nurturing -- there's not a day where someone doesn't call me 'mom' -- and they still need that safe, reassuring feeling in the classroom. At the same time, they're writing longer sentences and paragraphs, they're able to analyze written material more, and you begin to see so much more depth in their writing and the way they express their ideas."


Ms. Widmeyer recognizes teaching children is one of the world's most complicated and important professions. It demands a mix of enthusiasm, dedication, knowledge, authority and a desire to make a difference in kids' lives. And Ms. Widmeyer has that magic formula.


"I think that's why it's so hard to get into teaching, and succeed at it. You really have to have such a passion for it along with the patience that's required," she says. "At the end of the school year, there are two words I hope my students will use to describe me as a teacher: fun and strict. I believe that if you can achieve being those two things, you will strike an amazing balance. It's important to spark something in kids where there's an excitement and fun to learning, and yet when it's time to get down to business, they need to be able to focus and work. And I think that's really, really important in crafting a fun and productive learning environment for kids."


"In the classroom, you've got to stay young at heart, and that's one of the greatest things about being around eight, nine, and 10-year-olds all day. They keep you young. And I hope that's what draws them to me as well. I am a little offbeat, I am a little odd, and quite capable of being a little goofy with them."


Teaching at K-W Bilingual is also a family affair for Ms. Widmeyer. "My two girls, Madi and Emily, they've been such a big part of this school," she says, beaming with pride. "Each summer I do the camp, so there have been some summers where they've been here the whole time. Madi loves to set up my classroom and visit and Emily always assists me in coming up with new ideas, so they really feel like they're a part of my life here."


"One of the projects we do, we make a poster about ourselves. On mine, where we talk about our heroes, I've got my teenagers. I've written: 'They're my heroes because of their amazing personality traits.' I celebrate everything they do! They're kind and empathetic. They're such great people and I'm so proud of them."


Raising teenagers, though, will try even Ms. Widmeyer's patience some days, she admits. "My daughters are wonderful, but there are mornings where I'm getting teenage girls out the door -- maybe they're arguing over clothes -- and I have to take a deep breath before I get to school. I remind myself that the way I greet the children in the morning and set the tone for the day is paramount. Once I've made my students feel they're coming into a caring and comforting place, then we know we have an amazing day ahead."


"As my little poster on the wall says, I am the decisive element in the classroom."


That may be a "frightening conclusion" for Ms. Widmeyer, but no class could ask for a better "decisive element" than her.


Marshall Ward is a freelance writer and parent at the K-W Bilingual School.