Veteran teacher lends skills to Mount Ulla students

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Joanne Gonnerman
For the Salisbury Post
MOUNT ULLA ó Shirlene Wyttenbach is a volunteer at Mount Ulla Elementary School. She’s humble, devoted, patient and kind. She’s intelligent and witty. She’s been a teacher for more than 30 years and an educator for a lifetime. Shirlene Wyttenbach is 81 years old.
Born in Indianapolis, Ind., the former Hoosier began her teaching career in her home town.
“I started teaching at School No. 2 in Indianapolis,” said Wyttenbach, a 1948 graduate of Butler University. “It was the oldest school in town.”
Recalling those early years, Wyttenbach said, “Things were different back then.
“Teachers weren’t so afraid to hug students,” she said. “We could hug a child and no one was going to accuse you of doing something wrong. Nowadays …”
Her voice trails off with a sense of missing something about the way things used to be.
“It’s very important for students to have someone who cares for them,” said Wyttenbach, who taught for 25 years at Woodleaf Elementary School and who also volunteered at China Grove Elementary. “My parents instilled in me that I got my lessons done. That’s not the way it is anymore.”
That she cares for students is obvious to anyone who watches Wyttenbach interact with children.
“She’s done this for years and years and years,” said kindergarten teacher, Sheryl Belk, Wyttenbach’s daughter, referring to her mother’s volunteer work in schools. “It’s just part of who she is.”
Wyttenbach volunteers at Mount Ulla on Mondays and Fridays, from early in the morning until 1:30 p.m. She reads to the children and listens while they read. They review words together and she checks their daily reading log.
“I read to everyone,” said Wyttenbach. “I even read to our Hispanic students, but it’s not in Spanish. I show them pictures and say the English word. Pretty soon, they are speaking and reading in English.”
Wyttenbach recounted a time that she had worked with a young Hispanic student name Luis.
“Luis and I read together frequently,” said Wyttenbach. “One day, he introduced me to his mom as the school grandma. I’ll never forget that.”
The 20 students in Belk’s kindergarten class are a diverse group. Some arrived the first day of school not speaking a word of English. Through one-on-one tutoring and work in small groups, the non-English-speaking students are immersed in English and learn it more quickly.
“Mrs. Wyttenbach has been wonderful for the classroom,” said Sue Wiles, Belk’s teacher assistant. “She has volunteered here ever since Mrs. Belk came to Mount Ulla 15 years ago. Her many years of teaching experience and one-on-one interaction help even students who struggle with letters and sounds see, yes, they can read. Teaching is so important to her.”
Students who begin kindergarten in the fall are beginning readers by the end of the school year. Keyboards and computers complement pencils and the word wall.
Belk explained that the standard course of study goals for kindergarten have changed drastically during the past five years.
“It’s a large load, what the state is asking of kindergarten students,” Belk said. “Having volunteers in the classroom helps us reach those goals. Kindergarten is so much like first grade now.”
Belk provided an example of those advanced goals by having student Natalia Wilson, daughter of Joe and Natalia Wilson, share her technology project, a multi-media presentation about her year in kindergarten. Each student in the class will complete this project. When done, they will have a finished product of their year on a CD, complete with pictures and statements they have written.
“This project is very time-consuming,” said Belk. “But it’s technology!”
Assistant Principal Jason Rivers praised the work done by volunteers and said that Mount Ulla is fortunate to have so many school volunteers.
“I think it’s good for students to see volunteers of all ages,” said Rivers. “Our older volunteers have a lot of knowledge they can share and our parent volunteers get a chance to see how a class is run. Volunteers help teachers get things done. Reading to students is the biggest area they help us with. It’s a great benefit to students.”
Rivers added that approximately 50 to 60 parents routinely volunteer in classrooms, in the library and with book fairs. The school also has an active Parent/Teacher Association.
“That was one of the big perks about coming to work at Mount Ulla,” Rivers said of his first year in administration at the school. “Mount Ulla is a close-knit community. Everybody knows each other.”
Belk echoed that sentiment.
“What’s nice about working at Mount Ulla, is that I live here,” said Belk. “This is my community, too. It’s not uncommon for a parent to see me at the grocery store and ask me how their child is doing in school.”
As far as volunteering goes, Belk hopes that other senior citizens in the area will start thinking about volunteering in schools.
“Our senior citizens are such a valuable resource that we’re not tapping,” said Belk. “They have such great experiences that they can share with students. Talking to our students and having conversations with them helps their vocabulary grow.”
Wyttenbach agrees.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from volunteering with students,” said Wyttenbach. “Volunteering gives you something to do and keeps you younger than you would be. I feel like I’ve accomplished something that day. I’m going to try to do it as long as I can drive.”
In her spare time, Wyttenbach volunteers in the store at her retirement village and stays in touch with her other children: son William, who is an anesthesiologist, and daughters Caryl, a registered nurse, and Suzanne, an executive with IBM.
“I know there are a lot of former teachers who live at the retirement village,” said Wyttenbach. “When our residents filled back-to-school bags for students, we had such a good response. Even the men might be interested in volunteering.”
Of those former teachers, she said, “I should bring a group of them to Mount Ulla and encourage them to adopt a class.”