Second grade teacher PattiJo Boehm believes her role has been: “Making every child feel like they’re special and welcomed and smart and talented. That’s what’s important.”
For 19 years, Boehm has been teaching at Willow School in Homewood. She’ll be retiring at the end of the school year, packing up a classroom that’s chock full of books and memorabilia and a “Smile File” stuffed with thank you cards and special notes to the teacher.
But what really matters is the hundreds of lives she’s touched during those 19 years. She hopes she’s instilled the 6- and 7-year-olds with a love of school and concern for others.
While much in education has changed, “Building that classroom community and welcoming kids in, making it feel like a family and having them feel safe, that hasn’t changed,” Boehm said.
“If kids don’t like coming to school in second grade, that’s more important to me than how they’re doing in reading and math. I want them to like coming to school, I want them to feel safe coming to school and I want them to feel this is a good place.”
Willow School serves children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grades. Teachers work around a Willow Way motto: Be safe, be caring, be ready. Boehm developed her classroom model around the Willow Way.
“We build around that. The first week of school, in my classroom we make a contract on what it means to be respectful learners. We work together to talk about what we want our classroom to feel like,” and the students set out expectations for themselves and the class as a whole.
If a student is disruptive or having a bad day, Boehm will tell the child to “go read our expectations” although she says the class contract is really about kids being confident. “A lot is with the Golden Rule, and being peaceful, assertive and problem solvers.”
While some would say second graders are too young to understand the bigger world outside their classroom, Boehm has found ways to teach them about other people and cultures because “I wanted them to become more globally aware.”
She prepared her students for the arrival of a new student from India by giving them a basic geography lesson about the country.
She taught them about service by collecting pop can tabs for the benefit of Ronald McDonald House, making Valentine greetings for senior citizens and collecting the kids’ leftover Halloween candy to be sent to military bases.
Boehm argues teaching is a hard job. Her Willow colleagues have always worked together, but that was even more apparent during the pandemic when they all had to learn how to teach remotely. Boehm calls it “baptism by fire.”
“We never would have gotten through it without the teachers who pulled together to make sure what we were delivering was useful, and really support each other,” she said.
Teaching was a second profession for Boehm. Her first career was in parks and recreation, but she remembers she always gravitated to the preschool programs and working with the younger children. She left that profession to stay home with her three children. When they grew older, she was a substitute teacher for six years and went back to school for a master’s degree from Lewis University.
“I think deep down I always wanted to be a teacher, I think I just wasn’t encouraged to be a teacher,” she said. The Golden Apple nominee said she may be leaving the classroom, but she will always encourage others to give the profession a serious look.
“We still need good teachers. Regardless of how crazy this profession has become, we still need good teachers and need to encourage them to be teachers,” she said.
“I don’t know if I’m done teaching. What I really want to do is go work at the Obama Library.”