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Heart Award: Compassion for all leads Austin to heartwarming success PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brenda Johnson Brandt   

From working with students who are struggling academically to mentoring fellow teachers, Mary Austin’s compassion is evident on a daily basis at Holyoke Elementary School.

With sincere respect and appreciation for the care and concern Austin demonstrates for her students and fellow educators, four colleagues nominated her for the Heart Award in the 2013 Emerald Awards program.

“Mary truly has a heart for her students and a heart for those she works with,” said Lynn Schneider. “Specifically, Mary is in the business of making a difference in the lives of others,” added Kimberlee Bennett.

“A priority for Mary is a student’s well-being and education,” said the nomination letter from Cathy Sullivan and Yesenia Bencomo. “She is a natural mentor whose door is always open,” they added.

Austin has served as Title I teacher at Holyoke Elementary for the past four years but was in the kindergarten classroom for 14 years prior to that.

Her love of her young students was so evident in her kindergarten classroom as she helped ease the transition in to the school setting for so many young ones.

Mary Austin works with some of her third-grade reading group students, pictured from left, Marco Mendoza, Juan Diaz, Angel Martinez and Carlos Legarreta.  

—Enterprise photo

“Her boundless patience, gentle manner and warm hugs helped soothe many a crying child or concerned parent,” said Schneider.

She worked tirelessly to create a classroom in which each and every child felt welcome and valued, and she went beyond the classroom to ensure that parents knew that they were important to her as well.

Then along came Reading First, and “our world changed forever,” said Austin.

Schneider said when the elementary school received the Reading First grant, Austin was on the forefront of implementing and building the program as she realized what a benefit it would be to the early elementary students.

Much more rigor was introduced into the reading program. Teachers followed a scripted program and learned about data-driven instruction.

Austin was a leader in the building level team that met regularly to discuss students’ needs, resources and interventions.

“I truly admired her contributions to our building leadership team and the insights she was able to offer into each and every student with regard to their strengths and needs,” said Schneider.

Austin said she didn’t realize how widespread the Reading First strategies were until she and her husband Jim were visiting their daughter Natalie, who was on her Peace Corps assignment in Kenya.

One day their driver took them to a Masai village where the children were attending school in their classroom on the side of a hill.

She described how little ones were seated side by side on benches under a tarp, listening to two young men who were sons of the chief. Noticing that they were working from a large sheet of paper that looked very much like the Reading First templates, Austin asked if she might take a turn at teaching.

She said the procedure was the same “I do, we do, you do” that they used at Holyoke Elementary, so she felt comfortable stepping up to the chart.

Always armed with a good story, Austin explained how the students were being taught the /oi/ sound in English words, repeating what their young teachers modeled for them.

All the while, they had no context for the words, one of which was soil, said Austin. As she taught, she picked up some dirt from the ground and repeated “soil.”

“The quizzical looks on their sweet faces were enough to tell me that this was not going to be an Annie Sullivan moment,” said Austin with a quick laugh.

Austin’s ability to be lighthearted yet maintain authority make for a win-win in the classroom. A recent visit to her third-grade reading class showed a fun environment for learning, yet one in which she had full control. Students were engaged.

Mary Austin, pictured in center, steps up to the reading chart at a classroom on the hill in a Masai village in Kenya when she and her husband Jim were visiting their daughter, Natalie. She recognized the board material that looked very much like the Reading First templates and took her turn at teaching.

Perhaps she picked this up from her own experience as a student back in the day at Holyoke High School.

“Max Bernard was our principal, and we toed the line,” said Austin. “His booming voice was enough to restore order in the hallways; however, he was able to laugh at practical jokes and praised us when we were deserving.”

Moving into the Title I program four years ago, Austin continues to be a strong advocate and support for her students.

“She possesses great insight into a student’s academic weaknesses and possible educational approaches to help him/her,” said Sullivan and Bencomo.

They noted Austin consistently looks for a method that will benefit the student and is willing to substitute a replacement program if the current one is not working.

However, Austin’s concern for her students goes beyond the walls and halls of the school.

She notices if a child is in need of a coat or school supplies or is not getting the nutrition and sleep needed, said Sullivan and Bencomo.

Beyond that, she brings staff together by organizing breakfasts, suggesting fun gift exchanges or planning send-offs for departing staff members, said Bennett. “She consistently engages in boosting staff morale.”

Austin said her own mother lived a life of generous hospitality. With her parents, Joe and Theresa Ortner, as her role models, it seems she comes by the nurturing role quite naturally. Her parents would be proud.

“Mary is always among the first to see when a fellow teacher has a need and to step in and see what she can do to help,” said Schneider.

“Not only does she offer advice, she volunteers her time to share classroom management strategies, loan supplies and model teaching—anything that will help her colleagues and students succeed at Holyoke Elementary School,” said Sullivan and Bencomo.

They pointed out that she gladly lends this support even if it cuts into her personal time.

Austin said there were many good things that came out of the Reading First program, one of which was the camaraderie among the teachers. “We were going to sink or swim together!”

She certainly does her best to keep that camaraderie alive.

“Threaded throughout a person’s teaching career are her connections with others,” said Austin.

She elaborated that those relationships are the basis of the caring atmosphere that permeates the school. “Without one another, teachers and students would be unable to rise to their full potential,” said Austin.

“It goes back to the saying, ‘They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” Austin added.

Austin takes 26-year break

Austin earned a bachelor’s degree from then-Colorado State College in Greeley in 1969, with a double major in elementary education and arts and sciences and a minor in social sciences.

She taught first grade in Holyoke for one year before taking a 26-year hiatus from the regular classroom for her and husband Jim to raise their five children.

Austin admits it was during her 26 years of raising their family that she learned what it was to really be a teacher and the important role that parents have in their children’s education.

“Serving as a parent, catechism teacher, director of religious education for St. Patrick Parish and 4-H leader taught me more about the learning styles of children than any college course I have taken,” said Austin.

During those years, her perspective also changed.

“I can remember wondering during my first year of teaching how parents could possibly send spelling papers spattered with grape juice back to school. In later years, I became grateful for those papers, reassured that the paper had made it back to school and that the child had eaten some breakfast,” said Austin.

When first asked by school board member Lonnie Carlstrom if she would consider teaching kindergarten, Austin said she told him a person would have to be crazy to teach kindergarten.

Something piqued her interest, however. “Now I realize that it was the hand of God guiding me toward one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Austin. She said she fell absolutely in love with the kindergarten students and worked hard to give them a good start.

Jim Yakel, the principal at the time, told her that her job was to cause her students to love school.

She took that purpose to heart. “We had grand times as I learned about the kindergarten curriculum right along with them,” said Austin.

Field trips, finger painting, holiday celebrations, artwork hanging from the lights, parents helping with math groups and story time all became special events.

Family is extremely important to Austin, and teaching her grandchildren, Austin and Josie Herman, rank among her fondest memories.

Her grandson was careful to call her Mrs. Austin, while “Nana” slipped out only occasionally. One classmate was sure that his mother didn’t know what she was talking about when she said Mrs. Austin was young Austin’s grandma.

Austin’s husband Jim retired last month from his position as agronomy plant manager for Grainland Co-op. They especially enjoy their five children and their families.

Austin said teaching Title I has been a good transition for her, thanks to Sullivan’s tutelage. She added that working alongside Sullivan, Nancy Kennedy and Bennett in the Title I program has been rewarding.

“How wonderful that the Heart Award has been created, as it represents the bond that exists amongst folks who are involved in the nurturing of our children,” said Austin.

“Therefore, it cannot be awarded to one person alone. I am honored to accept it on behalf of all of those whose efforts, love and talents are invested every day in the children of our community.”

Mary Austin

Current position: Title I teacher.

Education: Graduated Holyoke High School, 1965; Colorado State College (UNC), 1969.

Job experience: Taught first grade at Holyoke Elementary School, 1969-70; original coordinator for Baby’s 1st Steps home visitor program in Phillips and Sedgwick counties; speech teacher at HES 1994-96; kindergarten teacher at HES, 1996-2009; Title I teacher at HES, 2009-2013.

Family: Husband Jim; son Chris and his wife Julie and their children James and Grace; daughter Trudy and her husband Dennis Herman and children Austin, Josie and Lauren; son Toby and his son Ben; daughter Annie and her husband Hill Slothower and sons Emery and Andrew; and daughter Natalie.

Hobbies: Sewing and reading.

Community involvement: Parent, catechism teacher, director of religious education for St. Patrick Catholic Church, 4-H leader, original coordinator for Baby’s 1st Steps home visitor program in Phillips and Sedgwick counties; Phillips County child protection team.

Favorite Holyoke school memories: •My dad and his siblings, my siblings and I, my husband, our children and now our grandchildren attended Holyoke schools. I was pleased that Dad and I had a teacher in common, Mrs. Olive Peach. •I remember attending kindergarten in a stand-alone white building that was located about where the tennis courts are now. My best friend, Joanne, and I had to stand in the corner for talking­—but only once. •Before the new elementary school was built, students walked to the high school and were served lunch in the basement. Several years later, I had typing, algebra and home ec in that basement, and it still smelled like a lunchroom. •My love of reading was cultivated by my primary teachers, although I never liked to slow down for the skills lessons at the end of the chapters. I always wanted to get right on to the next story. •Math and English were my favorite subjects in high school for two reasons. First, we had great teachers. The second reason was that Mom and Dad supported me in those subjects, checking homework and suggesting improvements.

Role models: My parents, Joe and Theresa Ortner. I had a wonderful childhood, growing up with seven brothers and sisters. Dad taught us to always finish what we started, to leave things better than we found them and to work up to our potential. I remember him saying that he would help me with geometry homework as soon as I memorized all the theorems. Naturally after I did that, his job was easy and so was mine. Mom lived a life of generous hospitality. She was always welcoming but still held folks to high standards. Her Irish sense of humor saw her through good times and bad. When we had speeches or 4-H demonstrations to give, she spent hours researching ideas for us.

Holyoke Enterprise April 25, 2013