Touching lives and teaching lessons beyond the classroom | St. Louis Public Radio

Touching lives and teaching lessons beyond the classroom

Feb 28, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2011 - "I AM RETIRED NOW -- THAT MEANS DON'T ASK ME TO DO A DAMN THING."

The plaque that holds this quote rests on the desk of Mary Spencer, a 73-year-old retired St. Louis Public School teacher.

Evidence of Mrs. Spencer's successful teaching career is plastered all over her home in University City. "Excellence in teaching" awards can be found on her living room walls and tables.

"This was my first assignment," Mrs. Spencer says with pride as she shows a photocopy of her first contract with the St. Louis Public School District.

It was dated July 12, 1960, with a starting salary of $4,700. She was assigned to what was then called The Jefferson School in the city's Carr Square neighborhood. Now it is known as Jefferson Elementary School. Falling in love with the school and the students, Mrs. Spencer graced them with 41 years of her life as one of the best teachers Jefferson had to offer.

Though Mrs. Spencer's excellence as a teacher is undeniable, one characteristic about her places her above your average teacher -- the ability to touch students' lives outside of the classroom.

Mrs. Spencer felt privileged to have taught during an era in which teachers were allowed to bring home values into the classroom. A firm believer that it takes a village to raise a child, she believed that teaching not only consisted of book work and classroom lessons, but also helping her students learn life lessons that they could carry into adulthood.

Some of those life lessons required students to get out of their comfort zone.

In the spring of 1980, Mrs. Spencer took 35 students seventh and eighth grade students on a 10-day tour to New York, Washington and Canada. The students visited Niagara Falls and saw the Broadway production of "Annie."

"We raised our money," Mrs. Spencer said. "We had bake sales, car washes. ... Some of everything."

Raising money for the field trip involved a writing lesson as well.

"The children had to write to every black doctor and lawyer in St. Louis and tell them what we were doing, and ask them if they could donate money [for the trip]," she said. Mrs. Spencer proudly recalled that she received a check from the St. Louis Teachers Credit Union, which provided the remaining funds needed for the trip.

The opportunity to experience this 10-day tour allowed the students to see a world outside of the neighborhood they knew back home.

"For many of the children, this was their first time being away from home," Mrs. Spencer said as she looked at a newspaper photo showing the students leaving on their journey. "So naturally, they were home sick. I let them call their parents on my hotel room phone. We dressed-up for dinner every night, and we even stayed in first-class hotels in some of the cities."

Her loving embrace and lessons did not stop there.

She went as far as helping less fortunate students in their times of need, providing rides home after school to students who needed it, or lending an ear when students were faced with a problem.

Her students remember Mrs. Spencer as a disciplinarian as well.

Former students felt that a few taps on the rear end from Mrs. Spencer's rattan made students better. Through her form of discipline, they learned respect and even gained fond memories to look back on and laugh at the times when they got into trouble with her.

Mrs. Spencer believes that the relationship she had with students at Jefferson could not be compared to any other school.

Former students "have shared events in their lives, and I have shared how I feel about things and events in my life," Mrs. Spencer says, grabbing a tissue for her tears. "They have shown me that they love me. ... I've probably broken every rule in the board of education's book. But there's no amount of money that can pay for, or be given, to take the place of that [relationship with students]. I can't explain it. It's just something that's beautiful."

Editor's note: Teaching to some degree is about delayed gratification. Certainly teachers can take pleasure in seeing students master their multiplication tables or finish their first chapter book over a few weeks or a couple of months. But it can take many years before these teachers learn whether their students will complete their education and become solid citizens.

For retired city school teacher Mary Spencer, Evita Caldwell, 21, happens to be one of those students.

Caldwell is on the cusp of graduating from Saint Louis University with a degree in communications. In her final semester, Caldwell decided to look back to her fifth grade year and write about her former grade school teacher and the impact she had on her life and those of many others.