By Allie Talarico
I was the kind of kid who mapped out their whole life at six years old. I used to imagine high school and what it would be like. I vividly remember doing the math to figure out how far away I was from graduating. 2021, I’d calculate over and over. That’s the year I have to reach. That’s when I’ll finally make it. I’d imagine what it would be like at the very top of the food chain. I’d imagine prom and my classes and finally pulling on a cap and gown. Never did I ever imagine that when I finally reached my senior year that it would look like this. Granted, I also never imagined that I’d still look like I’m 12 even though I’m nearly a legal adult, so I guess I was wrong on many fronts.
If I could go back and tell that six year old one thing about what it was actually like to ‘finally make it’, I’d tell her that’s it bittersweet. Sure, I can’t wait to go to college and start a real life, but you can’t help but be at least a little sad watching this long train of lasts leave the station.
I’ve been reflecting a whole lot on my years in Naz. For thirteen years, I’ve sat in a countless number of desks in a countless number of classrooms, and somehow, each one has seemed to mark an important milestone in my life. Whether this milestone was in kindergarten with Mrs. Koegler when I realized that I really liked this thing called school, or in AP Biology with Mrs. Rakos when I learned that I really liked this thing called biology and wanted to spend the rest of my life studying it. Here’s what I’ve recently come to understand: the milestones I reached were only possible with the guidance of the teachers who have been the gleaming lights on this long, tedious road.
After 13 years of pinning landmarks on the map of my life, I was left with one burning question: what makes the teachers at Nazareth so good? I mean, is it something they put in the water?
In order to answer this question, I turned to some of the most influential teachers that have had a profound impact on my educational career, and sought out their secrets to the classroom.
You didn’t ask, but I’ve always considered myself to have peaked in the third grade. It’s tragic, really, that I was at my best at 9 years old. 3rd grade Allie just seemed to have had her life together in ways 12th grade Allie aspires to. She knew what she wanted, she wasn’t afraid of what people thought, and of course, she had a great classroom to grow in. Mrs. Nolder was my last teacher at Lower Nazareth Elementary, but arguably the one that had the biggest impact on me while I was there. I would be lying if I told you that I remembered every lesson she taught me because I don’t. But for me, it wasn’t about the lessons Mrs. Nolder taught me. Instead, it was the safety of her classroom, the trust we had in another, and the way I felt that I remember.
Speaking with Mrs. Nolder now, I realized that the way I felt in her classroom wasn’t a coincidence. Each year, Mrs. Nolder seeks to make a connection with each of her students from the very beginning. “The first thing is making students feel really welcome,” she told me when asked about her traditions for the first day. “Students can’t learn until they feel safe. Typically we do a lot of STEM, team building activities in order to make our classroom family.”
This family atmosphere which Mrs. Nolder tries to incorporate in her class was the exact kind of welcoming sense I remember feeling when I walked in there every day in the third grade. This is due to the positive energy that Mrs. Nolder practices every day. But don’t be fooled; it’s more than just her cheery smile, it’s her outlook on coming to school. “Everyday I wake up, and I’m excited to come here,” she told me. “I don’t wake up and feel like it’s a job and I don’t want to go. I love what I do and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” Mrs. Nolder mentioned how a strictly cyber schedule last spring hampered with this connection. But she didn’t dwell on this negative for too long, and instead told me how grateful she was to have the opportunity to return in-person learning. “I’m very thankful to be back in the classroom, and not only looking at their icons on the screen. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s not about telling them the curriculum. It’s about making a connection.”
This connection piece doesn’t end once you progress past elementary school. In fifth grade, Mrs. Trach says that her job is to keep students “hooked on learning.” She told me that her greatest feat is being involved with “students’ lives beyond 5th grade… “It means that I was able to make a connection with a kid that lasted more than 180 days.” This connection really does make a difference, especially in a grade as strange as fifth grade, as I don’t think there is a time when you become more acutely aware that you have a body and a brain. If third grade me was peak me, fifth grade me was at the bottom of the barrel. But despite being a weird time to be human, fifth grade was the year Mrs. Trach introduced me to my love for reading and sparked my passion for writing. Mrs. Trach taught me something that I still am empowered to believe today and that is that WORDS ARE REALLY COOL! Without her class, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
Her inspiration for teaching reaches beyond just forming meaningful connections. Mrs. Trach told me that her inspiration was the long line of meaningful teachers who came before her. Being the daughter and granddaughter to profound teachers of their time, Mrs. Trach is keeping her family line strong each and every morning she comes into the class. Being a Nazareth veteran for 16 years, I asked Mrs. Trach what she believed has changed during the time the class of 2021 has been in the district. She told me the main thing that has changed as an ELA teacher is the shift of teaching students to practice creative writing to technical, analytic writing. In fact, she told me that she thinks it was the class of 2021 that pioneered this shift when the Text Dependent Analysis section was first introduced to the PSSA’s. Mrs. Trach told me that this addition to the tests was so overwhelming for creative writers in my class, that it even led to a few “breakdowns” at testing time. I laughed at this story, because frankly, it’s kind of funny. But this just seemed to clarify one idea that had been stirring in the back of my mind: a lot of change has happened with the class of 2021.
Not only were we the first class to usher in this new technical, writing curriculum, but we are also the first to spend our entire senior year in a pandemic. And on a more positive note, in the 7th grade, we were the first class to start with chromebooks. Technology, most of my teachers agreed, was the biggest change in the 13 years as my class has moved through the district. Mr. Snyder, my 8th grade history teacher, said “the biggest change is the shift from a paper curriculum to an online curriculum.”
When I consider the eighth grade, I remain on the same slippery slope that I categorize fifth grade under. My only solace is that eighth grade is an awkward transitional phase for everyone, and I can promise you that I was no exception. Just figuring out how to be a real person, fourteen years old was not a time you wanted to meet me in. Unfortunately for him, that was the year Mr. Snyder had to have me in class. In the eighth grade, just like in the years before, I had the chance to come out of my shell and really practice my love for writing. Most of this happened in Mr. Snyder’s history class where I had the opportunity to participate in a speech competition. (Also important to mention, Mr. Snyder’s 8th grade history class was the only class to date that allowed me to sing Hamilton as a part of the lesson. I think this would be a good time to formally apologize to everyone in my class that year who had to listen to me rap “Non-Stop”).
Looking back, I have realized that these wonderful moments happened in-person, in a classroom. Obviously, due to the current situation, things are different now. A cyber/hybrid schedule is the safest option for many students and families, and even though it’s a bummer that this is the way things are playing out, as long as everyone remains safe and healthy, then that’s all that matters.
However with the sudden implication of cyber school, at least in the school setting, it seems like things are going to stay on this technological advance for a little while. I asked Mr. Snyder what he thinks will continue to change in the next 13 years when the kindergarteners of today are graduating high school, and he said that he can see “cyber school becoming a mainstay in education”.
And my other teachers, including Mrs. Jameson, agreed. “Technology is the biggest change,” she told me, especially through “our ability to communicate with students more frequently with schoology.” But she also believes that, emerging from the pandemic, schools across the nation will rethink the more traditional aspects of school including “school start times,” adhering to “really strict due dates,” and instead to begin to prioritize the “students’ mental health.” I think we can all agree that this is good news.
Unlike the years before, I can’t be too critical of myself in the 11th grade since not enough time has passed for me to regret any personal choices I had made last year. Although it was a strange year that got cut short with unprecedented circumstances, I took my favorite classes in the school district during my junior year of high school: AP Psychology with Mr. Andstadt, AP Biology with Mrs. Rakos, and of course, AP Language and Composition with Mrs. Jameson. Lang was the first class where I felt like a real writer. Yes, I had been a writer in all of my previous English classes when I wrote papers, but this class was the one that really allowed me to craft my own voice. I am forever indebted to Mrs. Jameson for helping me do this.
Lang was unique in the sense that Mrs. Jameson took to the practices she preaches of prioritizing students' mental health and made our well-being a key role in her classroom. Teaching 11th grade, Mrs. Jameson knows the trials and tribulations that students face making sure junior year is spotless for college apps. The priority of caring for our mental health shows through the conversations that flow in her class whether that be through smiles and frowns (starting off class by sharing a positive or negative event currently going on in our lives) or through the large group conversations that had persisted every 4th block I spent in her class. And if she had the chance to teach another course, Mrs. Jameson told me she would teach AP Psychology for the same reason: conversations.
Creating a positive classroom environment is one of the few things in the district that hasn’t changed. Another thing that hasn’t changed? Weird student trends. While the slang seems to transform with the student body, all of the teachers can count on weird ways Gen Z decides to present itself. For Mr. Snyder, weird trends include “holes in the jeans” and “walking around with little white things in your ears all day” (aka airpods). For Mrs. Trach it’s lately been the term “yeet” which pops up in conversation between fifth graders and in the Zoom chats.
But the uniqueness of my generation isn’t the only thing that has remained solid through the passing of time. Another is student success stories. Mrs. Nolder told me that the arcs she finds most rewarding are the ones of students who come in claiming that they don’t like reading or writing. Her favorite moment is when these particular students can say at the end of the year “I like reading now” or “wow, I can write.” “That feeling of knowing you’ve made a difference, broadened their horizons, and opened those doors for them” is the moment Mrs. Nolder said is the most gratifying. For my other teachers, it was a particular student that they remembered. Mrs. Jameson told me about a student who came into her class and had the opportunity to read short stories by authors who were representative of minorities. This student, who was previously struggling, told her that the article they read in class made him feel heard and gave him confidence. After that, the student felt as though he could succeed and could excel in education, even though the society may make him feel otherwise. Now, he is a junior in college, and succeeding in everything he puts his mind to.
The easiest question for all four teachers to answer was the last question I asked them: what advice do you have for me and the class of 2021 as we embark on this next step of our lives?
I got a variety of wonderful answers as you’d expect from wonderful people. Mr. Snyder wants us to make the most of our limited college years and to “be willing to take chances for things we normally wouldn’t do”. And an equally important one, “vote!” Mrs. Nolder smiled and told us to find something we love and to do it everyday for the rest of our lives. Mrs. Trach reminded me of the lesson she taught us on the first day of school, and that was to keep asking questions and to keep being curious. And Mrs. Jameson wants us to never stop learning, whether that be in a classroom or as a student of the world.
I figured this question was the easiest for them to answer because they all share one common trait: they’re all wonderful teachers. In many ways, this was their last time to teach me one final lesson.
But after I exited my last zoom interview, I realized something more. Their advice wasn’t just easy to give because they are all great teachers; their advice was easy to give because they are all great human beings. And I have a secret to share. This similarity isn’t linked to just these four educators, but across the whole faculty at Nazareth. For 13 years I’ve been in this school district learning about the mitochondria and the constitution, but more importantly, I’ve also learned how to be a kind, compassionate human being. This was only possible because I saw these traits modeled by the people who stood before me in the front of the classroom.
Yes, I may not remember each and every lesson these teachers taught me about the curriculum, but I’ll never forget the way they made me feel.
So, there’s the secret to the classroom, Naz. It’s not in the water. It’s in the people. And now, as I reflect on the 13 years as I’ve walked in and out of each of their classrooms, I realize that makes all the difference.