Meet the 2023 Teacher of the Year – Mrs. Richardson

Meet+the+2023+Teacher+of+the+Year+-+Mrs.+Richardson

Leona Gagalac, Editor

Veteran English teacher Mrs. Richardson recently won the coveted title of Teacher of the Year! For the past twenty one years, she has taught everything in the English-speaking world (basically), from Sophomore English to classes like AP Literature and the IB English curriculum. Mrs. Richardson continues to inspire students, instilling the confidence they need to succeed in her classroom and beyond. She spoke to the Patriot Press about the award, moments during her teaching career, and perseverance through difficult moments.

Read the full interview here:


Hi, everyone! I’m here as Ms. Richardson, this year’s Teacher of the Year. She is the drama department’s co-director as well as the ITS [International Thespian Society] advisor, and we’re here today to talk about her life at Township, her life with English, and what has led her to [winning] Teacher of the Year. So, Mr. Richardson, welcome! 

– Hi. I’m here with Leona, newly cast as Gretchen Wieners. Oh, my goodness! So exciting.  

 

So exciting! But this is about you!

– Okay. Okay. Sorry! 

 

Congratulations!

– Thank you. 

 

How does it feel learning that you won Teacher of the Year? 

– It was really exciting, a little overwhelming, but I think what really got [me] emotional was some of the drama seniors [doing] the announcement, and they did, like, a little vocal… they sang it! And they announced it, and that made it kind of so much better because it’s nice to be recognized by your colleagues, but being recognized by students is always really special. 

 

I know you’re the drama director in addition to being a teacher. So how do you feel like your experiences, both theatrical being extracurricular and then your curricular with your experience with your students, how do you think they have impacted your time at Township? 

– Sometimes it feels a little one and the same depending on who the students [are that] I have in any given year. In years past, I had tons of kids who were both in my class and were heads of crew or stage directors or anything like that. I guess I’ve been here long enough. It used to be a little harder because I think in my younger years, when I was working with drama kids, they kind of saw you as more of an extension of them, like another kid and everything like that. And you had to kind of really practice being the mature, responsible one. Whereas now it’s that people know that I’m the old lady,  the voice of authority, and everything like that. But  in class, I think a lot of my work with drama  comes in. I’m an English teacher, so we do Shakespeare, we do The Crucible, we do things like that. So a lot of the activities that we do in drama work really well to get the kids excited and involved in my regular English classes as well. And then this other thing: sometimes you find students who are maybe a little quiet, maybe a little shy, but maybe they’re really artistic or you see something about them and you can kind of pull them out and say, Hey, I’m in charge of this really wonderful club with this great organization of kids! And you see someone who, yeah, maybe was kind of shy and didn’t talk to a lot of people, but that student finds their community in drama here, and that’s really exciting as well. 

 

That’s so nice! And now, going towards your life as a teacher, how long have you been working at FTHS?

 – This is my 21st year. Like the age of a person who can drink. 

 

Your teaching career is very adult.

– It’s officially an adult, it could even vote! 

 

Looking back, what made you realize that you wanted to be a teacher and what led you to your profession today? 

– Well, so I didn’t go to college wanting to be a teacher. I went to college anticipating working in editing and book publishing, which I did for a little bit. That being said, I do remember having one particular class for English majors in my undergrad where I was blown away by these teachers. I was blown away by the content and it just made me love even more than I already love the written language, the power of writing and communication, and everything like that. At that point, I’d always kind of push away. I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I was like, oh, if I could be a teacher like this, then maybe that would change my mind. And then I worked for about a year in New York City. And it was really kind of, kind of, depressing. I don’t know, I think I had in my head, like some kind of Sex in the City, you know, fabulous New York existence. And it’s not like that at all, but honestly, within, like, six months of my first job, I started looking for graduate school programs. And then after kind of investigating some and finding one that I really, really love, I started as a full year student teaching full time in inner city South Philadelphia. And it was brutal, but I kind of was like, hey, I can handle this, and I’m actually good at this. This is probably something that I should do.

 

Definitely, because life isn’t really that linear, where it’s, go to school, become a teacher, you’re so happy, boom. Done. It requires soul searching. And have you been able to use those experiences and be able to impart that into your students?

– Yeah, well, that’s the whole thing. This is my first year possibly ever, or definitely in a very long time that I haven’t had seniors. And so normally, I have a lot of seniors. Like, last year, I had almost all seniors, and I think that there’s so much pressure. Juniors and Seniors and college and the programs you’re going to get to and this and that, and so, so much of that. I don’t want to say it’s meaningless, but very few people at 16, 17, 18 know what [they’re] going to do for [their] entire life, and you kind of figure it out as you go. And even if you do a job and wind up, this is not for you, it is entirely okay. You’re going to be doing this for 20, 30, 40 years. You don’t want to be doing something that you don’t really enjoy and that you’re not really passionate about. So there’s always time to kind of figure out your path in life, and it just might take you a little longer than everybody else. And a lot of times, though, I feel like even sometimes people you feel like, Well, everybody has it all figured it out, but nobody has it all figured out. They’re just better at pretending that they have it. They have, like, the Instagram presence that looks very polished and professional, but in fact, I think everybody really kind of has to move a lot before they figure out what they really want to do. 

 

Exactly. And then when you’re thinking about, like, students and the intersection of teaching and life at Township, what brings you the most joy when you come to work?

That’s a good question. One of my favorite things is anytime there’s something that I’ve taught for a long time – like I can’t even tell you how many times in my life I’ve read Hamlet – but if a student brings something new that I’ve never thought of or I’ve never heard of, that’s always incredibly exciting. Like, really exciting for me, it’s nice to see growth. It’s nice to see kids gain confidence. It’s also just nice to see them be excited about something and be like, Oh, wow, this is really cool. This was interesting. This was fun. Unfortunately, not everybody likes to read. Not everybody enjoys writing, but if you can kind of hook them in with something that they get excited about to me makes me excited. I’ve been a reader my whole life. I think you’re a reader as well, but I’ve been a writer from the times of Elementary School. Remember second grade writing and getting every book you could and thinking about that joy you have. It makes me sad when people don’t have that same kind of passion or if you don’t have that same kind of feeling. I don’t know, but to me, it’s just relaxing and it’s something that I find so much enjoyment of. It’s great when you can connect people with something that they’re really interested in, something like research, it could be anything. I also think finding when someone is really confident and giving them the platform to share their knowledge and confidence with other students is also really exciting for me. 

 

Absolutely. And now can you tell me about a memorable experience that you had at Township? Either teaching or non-academic related?

– Oh, geez, there have been many. I will shout Mr. DiGiuseppe, your intrepid advisor. Many years ago, he used to play pranks on me. And probably his ultimate prank, one time, was that he kidnapped my entire class. It was the day my seniors were taking the AP exam and I wanted to wish them luck as they were walking in. I asked if he could watch my class for literally two minutes while I went to the library to give them a thumbs up. And I came back later to see that there was only one student and [the student] was like, well, this is a really small class. And [Mr. DiGiuseppe] actually got our supervisor involved. They took my entire class and hid them in a stairwell, and I had to find where they were, so that was fine. But then another time, he did flashmob me and I was really impressed with this one because he got an entire cast and my entire class was in on it, obviously. And they, I guess, rehearsed. I’m taking attendance, we’re trying to do some journal and everything, and all of a sudden, bubbles start. Kids take out bubbles that they’re blowing. And then the Little Mermaid soundtrack starts playing. They have, like, fish, they’ve got props, and they’re doing a dance. And then Mr. DiGiuseppe, stepping out, came from the hallway with a trident. It was very elaborate, but the entire class knew a little dance and they made their little fish. So it was on April 1st. It was very, very elaborate, but I think that was probably a top five memorable experience. 

 

Top five?

– I would say. Yeah. A flashmob in your class. 

 

And it’s not even number one?

Okay, so maybe not. I feel like there are others, there are probably other things. [Pauses] Oh well, I don’t know if I should say this on record, but it was really amusing. This window [next to me]. One day, my students were being a little rambunctious and. We just have to go through this and all that work. And then I hear kids yell, There’s something hanging out the window. Literally a rope with a note attached to it. Someone is trying to send us a message and we take it out. And I’m not going to relay the contents of the message, but it was very dramatic and ridiculous. And the people said there was a sub and they were being a little goofy. And then the next year I found out the student who was the brainchild there, I had him in class next year and even if he didn’t tell me it was him, like the vibes were there. You were definitely the type of kid who had you just brought a whole rope into school just on the off chance you needed to create a grappling. But yeah, they would be the type to just have duct tape- [Laughs].

 

Only at Township. 

– Only at Township. It was like the wild west, sometimes – like, really ridiculous.

 

You can’t make that stuff up, and those experiences would not happen anywhere else. Considering your professional career and the spaces you were in prior to FTHS, what makes our school so unique?

– This is basically the only school I ever worked in. I’ve been here pretty much my entire time [as an educator]. This is definitely based on the schools I student taught in and the school that I went to. First of all, it’s a heck of a lot bigger. It’s like double the size of the school that I graduated with and I think even more so that definitely brings more characters. But honestly, I do think when push comes to shove, Township has so much spirit. Like tomorrow is the day before winter break. And it’s always my favorite day of the year because everyone’s just so happy. Everyone’s in costume, people have candy and they’re just giving it out to strangers. And then my favorite is the band caroling in the hallway. They always come into my room and play Feliz Navidad and all this kind of stuff. And it’s just that energy, that happiness, and that school pride that is something really special.

 

Coming into your position at our school twenty one years ago, when your career was a baby, what unexpected challenges came with your job in the following years? 

– Oh, jeez, I don’t know. Well, I see, when I started, I will tell you the truth, too, Mr. Brusotti. AKR Mr. SECA, was a senior in my journalism class, my first year as a teacher. Yeah, as you aid, we looked like babies. I remember being terrified because [my students] looked older than I was. That it was definitely a huge shift, a huge transition from my past experiences. First of all, having AP students who are 18 years old, while I was just, like, a fresh face out of college kind of kid. But the first five years, I mean, just teaching in general for I think for everybody, the first five years is the most overwhelming experience in your life. Like, you feel like you’re up all night and there’s so much work to get done, and it’s just very, very overwhelming. And to add, kids kind of push your buttons as much as possible, seeing what they can get away with, but I don’t know what to do. You see the course. I’m not going to lie. It was my second year here and I almost left. Like, I almost gave up teaching and said This is not me. Maybe I made a colossal and expensive mistake by quitting my job and going back to grad school. And actually, the thing that made me stick with it was I made a deal with myself. I had applied for a fellowship through the National Endowment of the Humanities that would have given me funding for six weeks in the summertime to study with 14 other high school teachers in London. And I made an agreement with myself that the only way I would stick with teaching is if I won the fellowship. And I just had such a bad day and was like, I made a huge mistake. And that night, there was a message on my answering machine congratulating me, saying, I won the fellowship. So own your education, because that was possible through a federal grant program. And it’s strange to think, what if 19 years ago, I decided to jump ship and do something else? It definitely would have changed my life, and I think it would have probably had some impact on a lot of kids’ lives  as well. 

 

Teachers are important, because then you’re able to influence so many lives. And then you look back to twenty one years worth of people who have grown up with different philosophies that you’ve input in them. To think that if you jump ship sooner, those lessons would have been learned. So as a last question, as kind of a reflection question, if you were to talk to yourself twenty one years ago – first year, fresh out of college – what advice would you give her about the job, about life?

– Oh, God. Yeah… deep stuff. 

 

Deep thoughts. 

– What would I say to me? So probably try not to stress out as much as you do. Now, I think with having years of experience, I try things, and if they fail, I don’t beat myself up. Oftentimes I’m excited because I’ll have this great or new activity as I do in class. [My students are] then like, We hate this. This is terrible. We just want to, like, do discussion questions and quietly read. About 20 years ago, that would have been upsetting to me. I would have felt like I would have beat myself up over it. I can’t believe I spent all of my time on something and it just didn’t work. And now I’m just like, hey, if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I even now have classes that are kind of like my guinea pig classes. If I have a really good class, I’m like, Oh, I have an idea. Let me try it here. If it works for them, I’ll try it with everybody else, but if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, right? One bad class is not going to ruin a year for anybody. So not to be afraid to try things, to not to be afraid to fail. And don’t get down on yourself when everything doesn’t kind of work out the way that you command it to.