Husband and wife to be honored for work at St. Joseph School
Submitted by Daniel Crofts on January 20, 2011 - 2:54pm
It was the end of a very hectic day at St. Joseph School in Batavia. The building was nearly empty, and teachers John and Margaret Volpe were finally on their way home when Principal Karen Green approached them and said: "Oh by the way, you know that award (NBC newsman) Tim Russert started that they give out every year? You two won it this year."
Who and what
Russert, who died in 2008, was a former Catholic school student. He created the Making a Difference Award for the purpose of honoring former teachers who had an impact on his life. It is given annually to a Catholic school teacher in the diocese of Buffalo.
"We had no idea we were even being considred," John said.
Green's announcement that they had won this award was a surprise for another reason as well: It's only supposed to go to one person each year.
This is the first time two teachers are receiving the award together. Green nominated both John and Margaret, who teach sixth- through eighth-graders at the Summit Street school, after finding herself unable to choose between them.
"After working with John and Margaret as a teacher and then observing them as a principal," she said, "I can say that when it comes to making a difference in students' lives, that's exactly what they do. It's a daily occurrence, and you can see it in how the kids relate to them."
John and Margaret teach social studies and English, respectively. Green commented that they spend a lot of extra time preparing for each week's lessons and always make sure to update their teaching tools and styles to make learning more exciting for the kids (using the latest classroom technology, etc).
Academically, the kids in John and Margaret's classes are held to high standards and, in Green's words, are "always busy."
In Mrs. Volpe's English class, students are continually honing their writing skills with weekly literature logs and various writing assignments throughout each grading period. As a result, they typically leave St. Joe's with excellent writing skills and high expectations for their academic performances.
"I like to see the students desire and expect a lot of themselves, and not just settle for crummy work," Margaret said.
In Mr. Volpe's social studies class, students become engaged in the material by discussing it in relation to current events -- which is one area of instruction where new technology comes in handy.
Commenting on the availability of news online, John said: "An event can happen on, say, Thursday morning, and I can present it to the class by that afternoon."
He enjoys the "give-and-take" relationship he has with his students, who are still young enough to question things rather than being strictly "goal-oriented."
"My hope for them is that they will ask questions and pursue the answers," he said. "And I hope they'll explore things a bit instead of just automatically accepting the obvious answers."
Not only do John and Margaret have expectations for their students in terms of academics and conduct, they also consistently follow through with those expectations.
"I've seen very few discipline problems on their side of the hall," Green said. "Their students know they need to behave a certain way, and that there will be consequences if they don't."
Beyond the books...
The Volpes' committment to their students extends beyond the classroom. Margaret oversees the school newspaper staff. John is in charge of the student debate team (both of which meet every week), and the couple spends a lot of time with students who need extra help after school.
Additionally, Margaret serves on the school's Academic Excellence Committee, which is designed to offer students educational opportunities that they would not get in the classroom. It also helps provide particularly gifted students with more opportunities to challenge themselves. Activities the committee sponsors include the annual spelling bee, Career Day, and peer tutoring.
Colleagues have benefitted from the Volpes' presence at St. Joe's as well as the students. John, for example, acts as assistant principal on days when Green is out of the building, serves as a "backup" for the other teachers and helps with discipline when needed.
Even as their boss, Green goes to the Volpes for advice every now and again.
Formerly a St. Joe's teacher, Green's experience is mostly with younger students. When she started her job as principal, she was a bit...well, green when it came to working with the older kids.
"John and Margaret have so much experience, so I always go to them for help and trust their judgment."
A great team
The Volpes have worked in Catholic education together for more than 40 years, and have taught at St. Joe's for more than 20 years. They met in the early 1970s as teachers at the Cathedral School in Buffalo, and were married not long after.
While combining professional and personal relationships can be awkward, the Volpes have found that, in their case, the two reinforce one another.
"There's that kind of natural trust you have going into the job (when you work with your spouse)," John said. "I know that if I have a problem, I can talk to Margaret about it. And as a teacher, I think I've learned more working with Margaret than anyone else. She's very inventive and creative, and she's helped me all along."
Likewise, Margaret has always had tremendous respect for her husband on a professional level.
"Since before we were married, I've noticed that John has an unusual rapport with the kids," she said. "He has a certain warmth (with his students) that I notice right up to today, and I've learned from that."
Without wanting to "overstate (the) influence" she and her husband have on the kids' lives, Margaret said that working with the students at St. Joe's is almost like raising a family.
"I notice that in eighth-grade, the kids form even closer friendships than before," she said. "And I really think John helps to foster that."
From Green's perspective, the Volpes' working relationship as husband and wife sets a positive example for their students.
"To see a married couple working side-by-side and having such a healthy relationship is good for the kids, especially in an age when a lot of families seem to be falling apart."
In the right place
St. Joseph School offers the Volpes an environment in which they feel they are able to "flourish" more than any place else. For one thing, the majority of kids who attend St. Joe's come from what Margaret called "very solid families."
The students themselves, according to Green, are what "make St. Joe's such a wonderful place to work," to which Margaret replied, "Amen!"
John, for his part, talked about how impressed he has been with the way in which the kids welcome and accept new students.
"Each year, within a very short time, new students are assimilated and welcomed."
Teaching at a Catholic school is also very important to both John and Margaret, the latter having come from a family of six children who attended Catholic schools from grade school all the way through college.
"I remember my father would work two or three jobs to put us all through Catholic school," she said, "and he never let up. That always left a big impression on me."
Margaret has always felt that Catholic education should be a choice for parents and families. And she always knew that if no one was willing to accept the sacrifice of a smaller salary (compared to a public school teacher's salary) and teach at a Catholic school, then that option would be gone.
In terms of how things are done, John and Margaret like the discipline and focus on values that Catholic education offers, while at the same time emphasizing the development of skills.
"There's a basic emphasis on value (in Catholic education) instead of just fact and procedure," John said. "And it's nice that we're able to talk about religion. (As a Catholic school teacher), you incorporate the values of religion into your lessons without 'preaching' religion."
John and his students talk about current events with concern for ethical issues and implications.
"I enjoy being able to do that, rather than having to stay neutral on everything."
Margaret's students explore Catholic values in many of their writing assignments. After a visit to Genesee ARC, for example, they wrote an essay about how their faith teaches compassion toward, and acceptance of, people with special needs.
Faith also comes into play with the teaching of literature. Margaret and her students discuss the books they read with religion in mind, asking what a practicing Christian would do in a given character's situation. Margaret also works with parents in determining which books are good for the kids to read, and which are not.
"There are books out there that promote the wrong values and glorify bad behavior," Margaret said. "I tell the kids that certain books they might be reading (on their own time) aren't good for them, and I work with parents to determine what's appropriate. And the parents are right on board with it."
A fitting tribute
John and Margaret will receive their award at the 2011 Making a Difference Dinner, which is next Thursday -- Jan. 27 -- at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Buffalo.
Two tables will be filled by those coming to support them, including family members, parents and faculty (including Batavia City Council President Marianne Clattenberg, who teaches third-grade at St. Joe's).
Green was very happy that the Volpes will be recognized for their work with the students.
"'The school wouldn't run as well as it does without them," she said. "They do an amazing job here, and I don't think they're told that often enough."