There is a lot to be said for improvisation. The inspired moment, the unexpected twist, the providential accident; they’ve all made significant contributions to to human evolution generally and human careers specifically. 80-year-old Sanford, North Caroline resident Jeanne A. Undy’s career in education owes much of its success and remarkable longevity to unscheduled departures from the lesson plan.
One of the more offbeat examples of this approach is the relationship that developed between Undy and a student named Leroy, early in her experience as a special education teacher. Challenged by a young man with extreme behavioral swings, and trying to restore a sense of order in the classroom for the rest of her kids, Undy one day acted on an impulse and walked Leroy out into the hallway.
She stopped in front of his locker and asked him to open it. Then she said “I think we need to put the bad Leroy in that locker until he can come back in and be good, don’t you?” Leroy gaped at her transfixed, then began to slowly nod his head as the terms of the incarceration dawned on him. “From that moment on I never had to worry about Leroy causing serious disruption in the class,” Undy remembers. “He was the lead detective on the case; if he started to act up I would get his attention and just give a glance out into the hall. He’d go out and put that bad Leroy in the locker every single time.”
If the student body that Undy has helped shape in her 38-year career as an educator were to gather together and celebrate her—or swap tales of her unique disciplinary measures—it might take a stadium to hold them all. And there isn’t a battle-tested vice principal anywhere who’d be able to keep them quiet. They would comprise a broad cross section of middle and high school-age students spread across three eastern seaboard states, kids who filled classroom after classroom with the exuberance of fresh discovery and a sense of belonging, in the capable hands of a caring veteran. “They were a challenge,” Undy recalls with a quick smile, “and I’ve always been grateful that a challenge was issued to me to meet their needs.”
One of a very select group of active North Carolina teachers over the age of 80 (an estimate provided by the NC Department of Public Instruction puts the number at two, though the identity of the other intrepid octogenarian was withheld), Undy got her start in 1951 after graduating from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. She returned to her home state of New Jersey and taught home economics at Pemberton High School, not far from where her mother taught rural children in a one-room schoolhouse during the 1920s and 30s.
One day, a school janitor approached her and paid a heartfelt compliment to the education he had received in that clapboard bungalow, with the visage of Margaret Aaronson moving adroitly from student to student, adjusting the curriculum to fit each desk in her rounds through the room. It was a vivid moment in a young teacher’s career, one that introduced her to a sense of both tradition and innovation that she recalls proudly, and with a persistent sense of wonder, almost 60 years later.
Undy left teaching to get married and start a family, sticking to the script of social convention in the post-war 1950s, which dictated that stay-at-home moms stand by their men with a vacuum cleaner in one hand and a casserole dish in the other. But by 1963 Undy’s life had been transformed by six children, a divorce, a remarriage, and two relocations ending up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sizing up the future with her husband Harry Undy (to whom she is still married) Undy elected to return to teaching.
When the state of Maryland granted her a license, it informed her that the only local openings were for special education instructors. Unfamiliar with this developing field, Undy tugged up her sleeves, opened a daily planner, and went to work. A lot of her early lesson plans relied on a combination of loosely expressed state standards, instinct, and good luck. “In those days,” she explains, ”the faces of special ed were so different. We got an alphabet soup of conditions we had to teach to, from behavioral and emotional problems to physical and mental handicaps, and we had to sort it out and figure the best way to move the entire class in the right direction.”
So during that pioneering era in special education Undy borrowed a page from her mother’s manual, and developed an improvised personal plan for each student in her care. In many ways that tailoring process became the core of her teaching philosophy over the years. “You have to teach to every kid in the classroom,” she emphasizes. “There’s no prize for getting the most talented kids over the finish line and leaving all the rest wandering around the course.” Each one of the hundreds and hundreds of pupils she’s encountered would likely tell a different story about ‘MizUndy’ and the ways in which she inspired them, humored them, and corrected them. But her fierce pursuit of a way in with each child, a unique route to the place where classroom communication could yield real individual progress, was the key with every one of them.
“There were so many times when I’d want to throw a kid out of the classroom,” Undy recalls, remnants of the original frustration returning to her face. “But that’s when you have to find a way to reach them. When a kid is most unappetizing and most unlikeable—when he’s acting out—that’s when he needs your attention the most. All kids like to have some structure, whether they admit it or not. And one thing that I know after all my years of teaching is that the kids who like it the most are the ones who have the least of it at home.”
In her own home, Undy worked at a completely separate job trying to provide that structure for her own children. With a dryer tumbling and the car keys still jangling on the hook from the last pickup of the day, she would talk on the long-cabled kitchen phone while stirring a pot of macaroni goulash, often thumbing through the pages of a schoolbook, or one of the novels that she read voraciously. Her own children were witnesses to the other side of life for a teacher, the prosaic, feet-on-the-ground existence that balanced the Olympian status generally assigned to those sagely individuals who would stand each day in front of the blackboard, dispensing knowledge that seemed to adhere to them by sheer mysticism.
The contrast was made vivid when Undy would make home visits to students in need of extracurricular attention. Sometimes it was to drop off a book she knew the kid was hungering to read, or to deliver materials for a project she knew the parents couldn’t afford. Other times it was simply to let the parents know that a missing student had been missing too long. For many years she delivered handmade holiday candles to students, bringing a flicker of light both literally and figuratively to households where children’s needs and wishes were not always the first ones met. This sort of mentoring, which would expand the boundaries of her classroom to remote corners of the county, became a model of professional conduct for her own children.
Her daughter Peg Flowe of Potomac, Maryland recalls that “She just did it saying ‘They’re not going to have anything if we don’t bring them this.’ What stands out was Mom’s wonderful ability to walk into a student’s home or sit across a table from them and invisibly cross the divisive lines of race, mental aptitude, and social behavior. She had the combined gifts of warmth, compassion, and sensitivity, and blended them with a firm teacher’s belief that ‘they could do it,’ no matter the task or the hardship. I will never forget how easily she crossed the line after the Cambridge riots and drove to school, a lone white woman going to teach at the Vo-Tech. (Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, racial unrest intensified on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Undy’s school was located in the heart of Salisbury’s black district). Not a soul bothered her. People knew she was a teacher and she was to be protected.”
Such fearless devotion to her students made a strong impression on her colleagues over the years as well. Fran Kasher, a fellow special education teacher at the Sykesville Middle School in Sykesville, Maryland, remembers that “When Jeanne began teaching at Sykesville in 1980, it only took a few weeks for me to realize that I’d found a partner who was there for all the right reasons. Yes, she wanted her students to learn the subject matter, but more importantly she wanted them to gain life skills and values that would lead to future success. Students knew she cared about them, and therefore put forth extra effort. I can’t begin to count the times she doled out lunch money or paid for a student who couldn’t afford a field trip. She lovingly gathered good used clothing for students in need, but was very discrete, making sure their needs were kept private. Jeanne did all those jobs required of teachers and did them well. But she showed by her actions that what matters most is the individual child.”
This theme is echoed by E. Lucille Chandler, a current co-faculty member at the East Lee Middle School in Sanford. “Jeanne is a motivator always going the extra step to ensure that her students are getting a quality education,” says Chandler. “She is positive and encouraging in and out of the classroom. She goes out in the community of students’ homes to make sure they have a Merry Christmas, and she is an advocate for her special needs students, always making sure that they are treated fairly at all times while at school. She knows these students love her as she loves them.”
In response to Undy’s admonition that “No teacher can be successful without the support of a good principal,” Tom Harvey-Felder, her current one at East Lee—where Undy will conclude her career on June 11, 2010 as a reading teacher—counters with “What can you say about a teacher who arrives at 6:30 in the morning to open the school? Her passion for teaching is undimmed after these many years. Throughout her tenure she has maintained warm relationships with students, challenged each, and advanced them academically. Parents meet with her regularly and find her a friendly, helpful person to work with. Among the staff she is an encourager, and a shoulder to lean on for the younger ones—which is everyone. I have often sought her counsel.”
Throughout her career and its many venues and relationships, Undy has paid continuous tribute to the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Jeanne’s teaching was never static,” observes Kasher. “She always embraced new approaches and strategies to reach her students.” Engaged in conversation about the changing face of education and the way that modern teachers need to adapt, Undy returns frequently to the memory of her mother, who remains an icon in her estimation of what a teacher can provide for her students. “You see so many changes in education,” she explains. “We sometimes get carried away thinking that we can redesign the wheel. I can say that we’re refining it, but the basics are still there. You still have to teach reading and writing, like my mother did in that one-room schoolhouse.”
When Undy turns out her classroom lights for the last time in Sanford, there will be those ready to burnish a similar image of her, as a lasting inspiration, as one of the best. “The moment when this lovely, educated, and intelligent lady will finally choose to leave the classroom will be lamented and celebrated at the same time,” says Harvey-Felder. And Chandler adds “Jeanne keeps me focused and gives me a reason to come to work. I don’t know how I am to make it without her. I love this woman dearly…”
In the interest of full disclosure, writer John Oldach of Encino, CA admits to having been tangled in the long phone cord spanning Undy’s kitchen more than once. He is her son.