She’ll miss the kids

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, May 1, 2010

Almost everyday, for the past 30-some years, Nancy Clark has helped children to speak, read and adapt.

Clark started the district’s first English language learning program in 1976 at the now-defunct Austin Technical School. She has been teaching English to non-native speakers in Austin ever since.

After imparting a new vernacular to generations of students in the district, Clark will retire from Southgate Elementary in June.

“I’m going to miss the kids,” she said after w uesday. “I’m going to miss their enthusiasm everyday… It’s been so fun.”

When Clark started the district’s English language learning program at the technical school, the city was experiencing a small influx of Southeastern Asian immigrants.

“For a long time, I was the district’s only ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher,” she said.

Clark moved on to stints at the high school, where all district students were bussed in for ELL (English Language Learning), and later to elementary positions where she spent time each week teaching in different buildings.

Today, every school in the district offers English lessons on site, and for the past several years Clark has worked at Southgate with one other ELL teacher, Nicole Winter.

The two have about 100 students, who speak a variety of native languages but the majority are native Spanish-speakers.

Nancy Arneson

Retiring from Banfield Elementary

Terry Becker-Ersland

Retiring from Austin High School

Nancy Clark

Retiring from Southgate Elementary

Lana Epley

Retiring from Woodson Kindergarten Center

Dorothy Krob

Retiring from Southgate Elementary

Bruce Loeschen

Retiring from Austin High School

Deb Mickelsen

Retiring from Banfield Elementary

Ermie Moeller

Retiring from Ellis Middle School

Carol Nagle

Retiring from Banfield Elementary

Coni Nelson

Retiring from Ellis Middle School

Connie Simonson

Retiring from Ellis Middle School

Clark works with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who have a range of English skills. Some are complete newcomers to the language, she said. Others just need a bit of extra support.

Tuesday morning, Clark practiced “story previewing” with a small group of students. Sitting in a circle, with books on their laps, students flipped through the pages while Clark directed a discussion in English based on the stories the pictures might tell.

“We teach them strategies,” Clark explained. “It’s about how to learn and how to comprehend another language.”

One of Clark’s favorite things about teaching English is the time period when students begin to “break through,” she said.

Newcomers, who have no English background, go through a silent period, she explained. Soon after, they begin speaking in part-English, part-native language sentences.

“Then they begin to raise their hand in our classroom…. and next, they begin to raise their hand in their regular mainstream classroom. And, that’s amazing,” Clark said.

Clark said she would advise anyone thinking about becoming an ELL teacher to learn another language themselves.

“That helps to understand the difficulties and the process,” she said, noting ELL teachers also need to have a lot of empathy and be an advocate for their students.

Winter said that the latter two skills are exactly what Clark has taught her.

“She’s been an amazing mentor… I’d say she’s been the number one professional influence in my life,” Winter said.

Winter teaches the younger students in Southgate’s program, and it is her first ELL teaching position.

“She’s shown me that teaching is not just about reading, writing and arithmetic,” Winter explained. “It’s about working with students, parents and being their advocates — our students can have a lot of issues that mainstream (students) don’t have.”

Winter said she is a bit nervous about working with a new ELL partner next fall.

“They are going to have really big shoes to fill,” she said.

Clark said she’ll probably come back as a substitute or a volunteer, because she will miss the kids so much.

She doesn’t have retirement plans yet, other than traveling to Spain with her husband.

“I enjoyed meeting wonderful people over the years — the students, the staff and the parents,” Clark said.

At the end of Clark’s story-previewing lesson with the third grade group Tuesday, she told the seven boys and one girl that they would read the story all by themselves the next day — to which one boy shrieked, “Huh?!”

Clark responded, “It’s OK. You’re ready.”

The Austin Education Association is holding a retirement party Wednesday at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center in honor of Clark and other retiring educators. There will also be a separate celebration for Southgate retirees later in May. See sidebars for details.