The Passing of a Classroom Master
Last week, Sister Solange Bernier, an educator for nearly sixty years, passed away at age 86. I had the great fortune to work with Sister during the first six years of my career and her mark upon me was indelible.
In the fall of 1976, I was a brash, 21-year-old rookie, assuming my first teaching position at St. Dominic Regional High School. At the time, I honestly thought I knew what it would take to teach math and physics at a Catholic High School.
Sister Solange Bernier was a far cry from the college world I was coming from. She was an Ursuline nun in her mid-fifties and as unassuming and polite as I was brash. She also already had countless years in the classroom and a wealth of teaching awards that demonstrated her ability to bring the French language to teenagers.
Sister Solange Taught Francais
In one of my earliest conversations with her, I tried to show off a little bit. I had taken the time to look up each teacher’s responsibilities. “So you teach French,” I stated when we were introduced. “No,” she said, “Brother Paul teaches the French classes. I teach Francais.”
I remember nodding with clueless wonderment, thinking, “What’s the difference?” Before I could give a sarcastic response she calmly explained to me that Francais was the title the school used for the honors level French language classes.
Later on, in another conversation, I learned that she did not consider a person an adult until they reached their 25th birthday. Therefore this brash young teacher had to wait until his fourth year of teaching, fourth year of marriage, and fourth month as a father before she formally accepted that I had transitioned out of adolescence and into adulthood.
Born to Teach
Watching Sister during my first year of teaching I learned one of the truisms of the profession, some people are just born to be teachers. She epitomized the three essential teaching ingredients that every quality high school teacher demonstrates. First, she truly enjoyed teaching and relished the opportunity to share her subject knowledge with students. Second, she loved children and took great pleasure in the opportunity to be able to shape the lives of her students. And third, her subject knowledge was extraordinary.
But it was her demeanor that so enthralled me. She had a genuine love for humanity and in her eyes there truly were no “bad students”.
I remember once coming into the teachers’ room uttering frustrations about a student named Marcel and how his behaviors were driving me crazy. She listened very carefully to my litany then calmly informed me that she had Marcel in her class and that he was a good boy deep down inside. She then gently added that she was sure that a bright and hard-working young teacher like me could make a connection to Marcel if I only spent the time trying to do so. “If you get to know him,” she said, “you will reach him. I am sure.”
Watching her teach, I soon learned that those classic classroom management phrases we had been taught in our teacher training programs were simply overstatements. With Sister, there was never any need “not to smile before Christmas” or to be “mean ‘til Halloween.” In fact Sister Solange would have been horrified to hear such slogans. If anything, she actually melted her most challenging kids with her kindness and positive spirit.
The second lesson that I took from Sister was that the truly great teachers are unassuming. They have so much to offer they do not realize the impact they have, on the students they serve or on their colleagues, especially the rookies.
Each year her students would take a national French exam. Year after year, several would place among the top ten students in New England and seemingly every year one or two would place in the top ten nationally. Her response to those successes was that she was just a little nun who had the good fortune to work with many wonderful students.
And when it came to influencing teachers like me, well I was a bright and hard-working teacher so she was certain that I would find a way to reach the students I had been tasked to teach. That is as long as I was reminded that it was my responsibility to make a connection to the young people who entered my classroom. And as for teaching a little humility, well she knew just how to handle a brash college graduate by gently withholding adulthood from him.
Sister Solange earned more than a dozen awards for her contributions as a teacher of French and French culture. She also had the distinction of molding a young man and teacher. Yet, Sister Solange was so unassuming that in 1996 during one of those times when people attempted to recognize her for the contributions she had made to children and the teaching profession, she offered the following:
“They say to teach is to touch lives of youngsters forever. But I see the other side of the coin; to teach is to be touched forever.”
Perhaps it’s because she considered spending time in the classroom to be a privilege that she stayed at it for 60 years. She’ll be remembered by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, for many years to come for both her ability and her stamina in the classroom. As for me, I’ll remember her for being so instrumental in shaping my own career as a teacher.
Last week the profession truly lost a classroom master.