A Teacher’s Celebration of Women’s History Month
March is Women’s History Month. My spouse recently asked me, as we were talking about Women’s History Month, which women had most influenced my life. When I told him my biggest influences were Ann Marie, Mary Richards, and Sister Annette, he looked surprised. “Julie,” he said as gently as he could, “you know two of those women were not real people.” He’s not the first person to look at me a bit strangely upon hearing my list. But when you consider the dictionary definition of influence – “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone” – my list is not all that unusual. With utmost sincerity, and in a nod to Women’s History Month, let me explain further.
I was seven years old when “That Girl” premiered on TV in 1966. Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) was funny, confident, and charming while chasing her dreams. She had a boyfriend, something seven-year-old me was curious about. Ann Marie got me dreaming about living in my own apartment. She got me dreaming about how to comb my hair into that cool flip. She got me, the little girl, dreaming about being a grown woman and chasing my own dreams of being a teacher.
I was eleven when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered in 1970 and eighteen when the run ended in 1977. Oh, I coveted Mary Richard’s apartment. As one of nine children in a crowded house, this was becoming a theme for me! She had women friends and men friends; she worked at a job she loved; and she strived to improve and step up the ladder. She was a model for how I wanted to live as a grown up. Plus, that theme song tugged at my heart. I was going to make it after all! Since I knew I wanted to be a teacher, I imagined myself in a school workplace, working closely with colleagues and always striving to improve in my profession, just like Mary.
Sister Annette was my fourth and fifth grade teacher and my math teacher in sixth through eighth grade. She made learning exciting and challenging. She treated us as human beings capable of learning and knowing more than what was expected of children (Who teaches fourth graders about Teilhard de Chardin, for goodness sake?). After meeting her, I no longer wanted to be a nun, but I did want to be a teacher. She gave her students responsibility and independence and always encouraged us to do more. Plus, she played an autoharp. How cool is that?
When I became a teacher, I often tried to channel Sister Annette. I strived to view all my students as capable and curious. I worked to create environments where they would feel responsible and independent in their learning. While I did not learn to play the autoharp, I did make sure to include music in classroom activities every day.
Years later, when she was doing mission work in Central America, I wrote her a letter thanking her for her influence on my life. These excerpts below are from her return letter to my mother. She remembered me!
“I get it now,” my spouse said with a smile after I shared these explanations with him. “And any other women since 1973?” he asked. “Of course,” I told him. As I grew older, the list of women who influenced me grew longer. Each of these women have guided my life and my career as a teacher in myriad ways.
Gloria Steinem showed me what a powerful woman was. She was defined not by her physical beauty, but rather by a strong mind and a boundless determination to move others to action. Steinem was an influential journalist and an articulate, commanding speaker, things I worked hard to learn to do. She spoke to my soul as I learned about issues that impacted me as a young woman – reproductive choices, voting, the workplace I would soon enter. Her activism inspired me to write a “pro Equal Rights Amendment” editorial for my high school newspaper. She is the reason I have always been Ms. Letofsky. Inspired by Gloria to develop strong speaking and writing skills, I became a more effective teacher who could, in turn, help support children by including purposeful speaking and writing experiences in my lessons.
When I became a teacher, I collected books from everywhere to create a classroom library. Hidden among the piles of books from garage sales and second-hand stores was a little treasure – Honey I Love and Other Love Poems by Eloise Greenfield. While I always enjoyed poetry, this collection hooked me. She created images of loving families with sweet, rhythmic language. I worked hard to do her justice as I read the poems aloud.
The young children I taught loved the book, too. I sought out Greenfield’s other books – Nathaniel Talking, Grandpa’s Face, Me and Neesie, among many others – and created the first of many author studies that became a cornerstone of literacy experiences in my classroom. I could not write like Eloise Greenfield, Byrd Baylor, Patricia Polacco, Ursula LeGuin, and Margaret Wise Brown, but I could read their books and share their beautiful writing, their unique perspectives, and their powerful ideas with my young students.
I first learned about the United Farm Workers from Sister Annette, when she helped us understand the grape and lettuce boycotts taking place in our community. I learned about and greatly admired Cesar Chavez, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned about his work partner, Dolores Huerta. Rarely in the limelight, she worked tirelessly to address the needs of farmworkers. She was powerful and effective at organizing; she met people where they were at and worked beside them to make changes in their lives.
Huerta and Chavez taught me strategies for collaborating with the families of my students, meeting them wherever they were at as parents or caregivers and working with them to create the best possible educational outcomes for their children. I picked up strategies for leadership roles in my teachers’ union, too, learning to listen to colleagues and help them address concerns and needs in their schools.
I never even had a pet, but Jane Goodall inspired me with her passion, focus, and determination. She understood that to reach her goals, she needed to educate, advocate, and go beyond her own work into all the related issues about animals, the environment, and people in threatened communities. She gave me a model for engaging in the education profession beyond my classroom. I brought Jane Goodall into science and social studies lessons in my classroom, too, as a model for how to study as a scientist, learn as a member of broader communities, and impact decisions in a changing world.
Many other women have influenced my life in both subtle and powerful ways, including my grandmother, mother, five sisters, and special friends and teaching colleagues. My list continues to grow. I think everyone should compile their own lists of important women. We should share them widely, including with our students, to remind them and each other that we are all part of women’s history. My spouse, a teacher himself, agrees. He is working on compiling his own list.
Julie Letofsky taught young children in Arizona public schools for 33 years. She enjoys writing about the amazing things that occurred as she worked with children to become readers, writers, problem solvers, and decent people. She is a three-time National Board Certified Teacher, Early Childhood/Generalist.
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