In a second-grade classroom at Hillside Elementary School, students gather in front of the teacher as she reads Dr. Seuss’ ‘Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?’
She asks her students, “What are you lucky to have?” Hands fly up and answers come quickly — including being lucky to have Bob the Spider — the arthropod that wandered into the classroom and was welcomed to stay.
The teacher tells her students that she is lucky to have them in her class every day. And although the children clearly feel the same way about her, they may not fully understand how lucky they are, for they are Sherry Power’s final second-grade class. After 42 years teaching in the Elmbrook School District, Power is retiring on June 10.
These second-graders almost lost out on the opportunity to be in Miss Power’s class. She considered retiring last year.
“My last year’s class was perfect and I thought that would be the year to retire, but then I saw the first graders and saw they were something special,” she said of the students she currently teaches. “And I thought, ‘I can’t miss that.’ I’ve got one more good year left in me. And here they are — another perfect class. They are incredibly precious, kind-hearted, funny children.”
A first-grade teacher at Hillside will move to the second grade next year to replace Power. “‘Replace’ is a hard word,” said Julie Kremer, principal at Hillside. “The lives of almost a 1,000 children have been touched by her — and many still keep in contact with her. That’s really quite extraordinary.”
Power has been a second-grade teacher her entire career. She began at Swanson Elementary School where she taught for 10 years. She has been at Hillside for the past 32 years.
Things have changed in more than four decades. Among them is technology, but there’s not a laptop in her classroom.
“Now children bring so much more background knowledge to the classroom, whether it’s from technology, travel or media exposure.” she said. “Children are so incredibly busy now with dance and music classes and sports; and mothers were home more when I started teaching — they would be able to be at school and more involved in things.”
As her students line up to go to art class, she talks to them as if there is responsibility in being seven years old. Her teaching philosophy is that children want to be safe, cared for and engaged; and she teaches them that there is a responsibility to being in, and of, the world.
Curriculum comes and goes, Power said, “but not the hearts and souls of these little ones. At the end of the day, have they learned to see and care with their hearts? Have they learned that they have something to offer the world?”
Doctors, lawyers, government officials and even a test pilot are among Power’s former students. She gets the same satisfaction from teaching gifted children as she does from those who struggle.
“For the brightest students, there is a responsibility to those who struggle, and in knowing that they have classmates who don’t learn in the same way and at the same rate as they do," Power said.
“Second graders are just starting to be independent in a lot of ways, yet they can be molded and they get it. But they still get excited by the Tooth Fairy and dressing up for Halloween — there are still so many ah-ha moments for them.”
For Power, the challenge is in trying to help children who may be dealing with stress outside the classroom whether from a contentious divorce or a loss of a family member. “We have all sorts of resources here to meet their learning needs,” she said. “You want to help a child cope with issues outside the classroom, but sometimes it’s those things you can’t do much about.”
Power said teaching second grade has allowed her to pursue her interests and to expand curriculum beyond what is expected. She has been a strong advocate of connecting children and elders. In 1986, as part of an enrichment program for first, second and third graders, Power initiated Forever Friends.
“Back then there were so many young couples who moved into the area without any extended families,” she said. “I had a wonderful Irish mother who loved kids and thought there would be others like her who would enjoy being involved in the program.”
The Forever Friends program pairs Hillside students with residents from St. John’s on the Lake Retirement Community. The elderly participants join the students for school events and field trips throughout the year; and the kids attend parties and sing-a-longs at St. John’s. It teaches students that they are a part of something bigger, she said. “I want them to learn to make appropriate choices in life, and not only about themselves.”
The Forever Friends participants are part of the Hillside school family, Power said. “They are not replacements for the students’ grandparents. They’re friends. And who couldn’t use another friend?”
An award-winning program on Forever Friends has been produced and aired on Public Television; and 30 teachers have started Forever Friends programs in schools across the country. As part of her retirement, Power plans to travel around the country to help interested teachers establish Forever Friends programs.
Power has taught graduate-level classes at Mount Mary College, and has developed a program for teachers at Cardinal Stritch University that addresses elderly and bereavement issues and helps young children cope with loss. She’s also a published author on subjects that deal with loss for both children and adults.
Originally from Cedar Rapids IA, Power came to Milwaukee with a full scholarship to attend Marquette University. When she arrived, the urban setting didn’t quite suit her. “I asked a friend, ‘where is the grass?’” she remembered. “He told me if I wanted grass I should go to Mount Mary. I got on a bus and asked for directions to the college.” She never looked back.
Power who is single has planned for a full retirement. She wants to travel to all the places about which she has been teaching her children. “I want to sit in Monet’s garden in France,” she said.
She loves to work in her yard, plans to do a lot of reading, continue to volunteer at St. John’s and see and visit friends — many of whom are former students. “The president of Ghana is the father of a former student,” she said. So Africa will be on her itinerary.
Power gets more than 100 cards every holiday from former students. She is planning a trip to Charleston S.C. this summer to do a reading at the wedding of one of her second graders from a school year long ago.
Sherry Power considers herself a lucky woman. She has had a full and rich career, fostered broad interests, made an impact on the community, nurtured lifelong relationships and helped to shape the lives of many Brookfield students who look back to the days in her classroom and consider themselves lucky too.