The Thanksgiving holiday makes us stop and reflect on those things we can be most thankful for. Sometimes we are most thankful for circumstances, a material object and then there are the times when we are most thankful for how some people have touched our lives. Many people say if you have been touched in a way that has lifted you up, the best way to say thanks is to give back.
A recent recipient of the R.E.B. Foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, Ettrick Elementary School teacher Jacqueline Coffey, known as Jackie to all her students, parents, friends and colleagues, is a living example of just such a statement.
Coffey’s early years were, to put it mildly, a challenge. From three years old she went from one foster home to another until at age eleven she decided to run away from her last foster home. She landed at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home where her life started to turn when adopted by parents who would touch her in a way that not only changed her life, but ultimately the lives of her students forever.
“I’m thankful to God for his divine presence, not just in the good times but in the struggles of my life which made me resilient,” commented Coffey. “It is no accident to have had encouraging adoptive parents, Preston and Anna Taylor, amazing teachers, mentors, and students who have made me a better teacher. I pray that God will give me the wisdom to take this opportunity with this R.E.B. grant and use it to empower others to fall in love with reading and become lifelong learners. I am also thankful for my wonderful husband John Coffey and kids Dawna, Amanda, Amber, Taylor and Andrew.”
The R.E.B. Awards for Teaching Excellence was established in 1988 to recognize public school teachers who have distinguished themselves by their inspiring performance in the classroom. The awards program has been developed by the Community Foundation and is funded by the R.E.B. Foundation. This year an 11 member steering committee selected 33 finalists from nominations submitted by area students, parents, colleagues, other school personnel and the community at large. About 15 individual grants, ranging from $4,000 to $12,000 were awarded to support professional development activities.
Retired American Filtrona Corporation CEO Rudy Bunzl and his wife Esther established the R.E.B. Foundation in 1988. Since then, the Foundation has awarded over $2.1 million in grants that recognize and support public-school teachers in the city of Richmond and in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties.
Coffey, who didn’t learn to read until she was 12, recalled her early years in school, “childhood reading and writing was like carrying an albatross around my neck. I went to school and prayed the teacher would not call on me and if she did, I would find ways to disrupt the class which led to frequent visits to the principal’s office.”
This cycle of avoidance, acting out and being labeled Learning Disabled would finally end for Coffey in the first grade when, “one remarkable teacher changed that for me,” admitted Coffey about her teacher Connie Wadsworth. “She used picture books, rich literature and read aloud to me! This was something that no one had ever done.”
I learned how to read not because of phonics, whole language or any other method. I learned because of loving teachers and parents,” admitted Coffey. About her teacher Wadsworth and teaching assistant Sarah Keyes, Coffey continued, “they taught from the heart.”
With the involvement and support of her parents, coupled with the efforts of Wadsworth, the journey for Coffey began. “I finally had the missing ingredient to making me a successful reader,” continued Coffey, “a mother and father who loved me and exposed me to rich literature and encouraged me to read. Reading with my teacher and my new mother became a magical time for me. Our kitchen became a mini classroom.” Added Coffey, “My mother spent tireless nights helping me struggle to read fluently. The old farm table took a beating as she banged out the rhythm of words. Much like I do now by stomping and clapping out words and reciting poetry with my fifth graders.”
Her troubled background has actually given her a perspective to recognize similar struggles in her own students. “My students try to use the same avoidance techniques that I did,” stated Coffey, “but I am persistent about developing positive relationships with my students and their parents. Difficult students remind me why I love teaching so much. They make me a better teacher and person.”
Teressa Clary, the principal of Ettrick Elementary states, “I am thankful for the opportunity to work along side Jackie and other such capable and confident teachers who go the extra mile to make the lives of students so much richer.”
Coffey has been awarded the maximum $12,000 by the R.E.B. Foundation and plans to put that back into her professional development including a trip to Australia where she will meet one of the two most influential mentors of her teaching style. “I plan to go to the National Literacy Conference in Sydney,” claims Coffey, “where Mem Fox will be a keynote speaker. For years I have read her books to my students and followed her philosophy about reading. Mem Fox states that all the methods of teaching reading are useless if there is not a relationship between the child and the person teaching reading. The person must have heart and affect.”
In addition to the trip, Coffey also points to further professional development, “I plan to finish my Master’s Degree in Special Education. This degree will allow me to become adept in the current studies and techniques needed to work with children who have disabilities.”
And to think that Coffey almost did not become a teacher. “After college I went into property management and I was very successful,” said Coffey. “I was making a lot of money which was great, but inside I was miserable.” This would go on for a while until she talked to her husband about how she felt. “He asked me what it is I really wanted to do and he supported my decision to leave property management to get into teaching.”
When you consider the lives that have been touched and will be touched by Coffey, that is certainly something the students and parents of Ettrick Elementary School can be thankful for.