Harriton Says “Au Revoir” to Madame Gordon

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Gregory Kurtzman, Features Editor

1. How long have you been teaching?  How long have you been teaching at Harriton?  Have you taught anywhere else besides Harriton?  Did you have any careers prior to teaching?

I have been teaching for 35 years, and I have been at Harriton for 32 years.  Prior to coming to Harriton, I spent half a year in Philly, 2 years at Welsh Valley, and a year at Lower Merion.  I did not have any other careers before teaching (unless you count the time I taught disco at a company called Purple Haze).

2. What have you enjoyed most about teaching?

I have most enjoyed the kids who really appreciate learning and the kids who are so funny that they make me laugh until I cry.  I have enjoyed the sense of pride I feel when kids achieve beyond what is expected..  I have enjoyed “old-fashioned students”, the kids who do the work, are motivated, and really care about learning.

3. What have you enjoyed least about teaching?

I hate grade grubbing.  I once had a terrible experience that I will never forget.   Some years ago, under a former principal, I had a senior who was failing.  Although I had worked with her independently, at the end of the year she did not receive a passing grade in my class, so I had no choice but to fail her.  However, before graduation I was called into the office and asked to change her grade.  I told them that I would not change the grade myself, but administration could if they so pleased.  The grade was changed, and at graduation all of the students were talking about how the girl’s father “bought” the diploma for her.  Also, it has been frustrating and often exhausting trying to get kids who don’t care, to care.    Additionally, I am always amazed how students, after spending two years with you, act as if they don’t even know you when you see them in the hall.  Makes you feel that they don’t need you anymore so why even bother saying hello.  Not all students, of course, but enough.

4. What level of French has been your favorite to teach?  Why?

My favorite level of French to teach has been French 4H because there is enough language at that point to really do things and converse.  Because I taught French 3H as well, it was my second year with the students, and there was a certain comfort level between us.  They knew what I expected of them, and they did it.  I liked being able to do games and activities with them (as I did with all my classes), which are my forte.  I would never have wanted to teach AP French because I would not have been able to include as many games and activities in the course and I do not enjoy teaching literature  (plus second semester seniors are a pain!).

5. What is your favorite thing(s) to do outside of teaching?

I love reading, going to the gym, playing with my dog and creating yummy dinners when I am not exhausted!

6. Who/what inspired you to teach?

When I was in college I actually did not want to teach, but I was told by my advisor to go into teaching because it was something I could always fall back on.  I originally wanted to be a nurse in France, but I was frightened away from the profession after taking chemistry.  I then decided to gear myself toward education, and by my junior year of college I had so many education classes out in the field that I fell in love with the idea of working with students and trying to make them love French as I do.

7. What made you want to become a French teacher in particular?

I started taking French in elementary school, failed it and hated it!  Yet, in junior high school I had a teacher who made French fun.  In high school I had a teacher who made me fall in love with it.  I did a summer at La Sorbonne (University of Paris), and I lived in France as an au pair while I was getting certified in Spanish, which I taught in the earlier years of my career.

8. What were some of the highlights of your teaching career?  Were there any moments that stuck out to you as particularly significant?

I can’t think of any one specific moment except for possibly the times we did exchanges in France.  The kids were really able to handle themselves in French without Mrs. Gross’ or my help.  I also really enjoy receiving emails from former students telling me about their achievements and what they have been doing with their French.  Some of them even want to talk to me because they are going into teaching, and they fondly remember being in my classes.   And it’s always so much fun when I run into two particular students who met in my class, have been married for years and have 3 children!

9. Has teaching changed in any way from when you began and today?

My personal teaching has evolved dramatically over the years.  I originally started out with having all of the students in rows, and if any of the students spoke I had to be actively listening and correcting anything that was wrong.  However, now my teaching style is the exact antithesis.  I have all of the students sitting in groups of four or five, and I am happy with chatter.  In my opinion, the less I am doing and the more the students are engaged in the activity and the language, the better.  The goal is communication.  However, the students have also changed drastically over the years.  School never used to be quite so much about the grade. Additionally, I find it harder to motivate students today than I did in the past.  Could this be because kids are up late at night on Facebook or Aim?  Technology within the school itself has also changed teaching in many ways.  Not having grown up in the age of technology, sometimes I am overwhelmed by all of the things we are expected to do on the computers.  However, I have tried different ideas, with the help of our tech teachers, and I have always been pleased.  Also, I have noticed that there are far more assessments and state tests given, and I am worried that we are going to end up teaching toward a test in all of the academic areas.  Finally, I think that in this day and age kids are growing up way too fast. I love playing games in class because it gives them permission to just be kids and have fun

10. Have you had any trouble dealing with parents over the years?

Some years ago I had a particularly bad year with parents.  However, most often I have been fortunate enough to have had great cooperation.  Parents have accepted the fact that I do not make grade changes unless I have made a mistake.

11. Did you ever sponsor any clubs?

Yes, over the years I sponsored a wide variety of clubs.  I sponsored clubs such as the Fight Against Drugs, French Club (now the World Language Club), and AIDs Awareness.  However, I eventually gave up sponsoring clubs when I discovered that if there was no food, no one ever wanted to come.  Students would pop their heads in and say they could only stay for 10 minutes, and therefore nothing ever got done.  I sponsored the Fight Against Drugs with Mr. Young, and one of the goals was for high school students to go to the middle schools to help the younger kids make better choices.  I thought that the program was doing some good, but word got back to me that the president of the club had shown up to a party drunk.  Needless to say I did not continue with the club.

12. What will you miss most about teaching?

I will miss the kids.  I will miss how they made me laugh and their funny antics.  I will also miss the pride that I felt when I saw kids achieve.  My French 1H, 1CP and 2CP class just did podcasts, and what some of the kids were able to produce after just one quarter of French made me feel great.  I will definitely miss my friends at Harriton, and I will particularly miss teaching my 4H classes.

13. What do you have planned for the future?

I have been doing presentations for the past several years on games, strategies and techniques, as well as the no-English classroom.  At the national convention last year, ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) I met the French editor of EMC/Paradigm Publishing.  They are currently in the process of writing a new French text series, and I am under contract to write one of their ancillaries entitled “Activities for Mastery.”  I will be writing all three levels.  Additionally, I am in the process of getting a web page together, and I hope to continue my presentations as a business with some other Harriton teachers.  I also want to take courses and classes that deal with a variety of subjects, from gardening to Japanese!  I will have time to take my dog for long walks, spend more time with my grandchildren and play more in the kitchen as I won’t be exhausted all the time!.  I also plan on volunteering at the local library as well as for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.  I would really like to travel, but I will have to wait until my husband can more easily take time away from the office.

Fun Facts

1. What is your favorite food?

Huge salads, liverwurst, sushi, vanilla ice cream, and peanut butter

2. What is your favorite book?

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

3. What is your favorite movie?

The Helen Morgan Story

4. What is your favorite type of music?

Like everything but opera and rap (some French rap is acceptable!)

5. Has anyone influenced you greatly in your career?

I have always aspired to be like Robyn Newkumet, a woman who taught French and was department chair at Lower Merion for quite some time.  She was the person who I always wanted to emulate as a teacher, as she inspired me when I student taught under her.  I have stayed in touch with her, and I even took some ideas from her (including her famous “Cheri Dialogue”).

6. Any final words?

Despite the revolving door for principles that we had for so many years at Harriton, despite the “overenthusiastic” parents, despite writing curriculum at least 6 times during my career, I feel very fortunate to have spent my career in LMSD where I have really been able to teach.