Story by S.L. Hansen
McCOOK (SNR) — A couple years after Pat Janssen retired from teaching, she was ready to get back in the classroom again – this time as a volunteer for St. Patrick School in McCook.
The K-8 school had been offering a bit of Spanish to their middle school students, but the Hispanic volunteer who was teaching the kids numbers, colors, songs, etc., had left. Mrs. Janssen was asked if she would consider coming out of retirement. She agreed on the condition that she would be a volunteer, rather than paid faculty.
“We have five children, and they all graduated from St. Pat’s,” Mrs. Janssen explained. “I thought it was time to give back.”
She’s been ‘giving back’ as a volunteer Spanish teacher at St. Patrick School for more than a dozen years now.
She said that helping middle school students learn Spanish, while not required, is a great idea because it lays a good foundation in several areas.
“This is getting the kids ready for high school,” she said.
It also helps students who are not quite up to speed in language arts.
“If you are not good at English grammar, you learn it in a foreign language,” she said.
Mrs. Janssen acknowledged that she became a Spanish teacher sort of by default.
“I started out in college not planning to be a teacher in the least little bit,” she recalled.
Her first major was French.
“I went to Grand Island Central Catholic, and I had four years of Latin under Msgr. [Carl] Hayden,” she said. “So French was a piece of cake.”
By her third year, she had to choose a minor.
“So I tried Spanish, and it was really easy,” she laughed.
Teaching became a natural solution, especially when she married her husband 50 years ago and gave birth to five children.
“Most of the blessing of it was, I could teach part-time… three hours a day,” she said.
This left her free to manage her own family and still get the fulfillment and joy of teaching. And her kids never seemed to mind, either.
“They liked me better because I was gone three hours a day,” Mrs. Janssen laughed.
Her teaching resume is impressive. Certified as a secondary educator in French and Spanish, Mrs. Janssen taught at Marian and Benson high schools in Omaha, Marquette High in Marquette, Walnut Junior High in Grand Island, McCook Community College, and McCook Junior-Senior High.
Of course, teaching middle school students—who are not required to study foreign languages—is considerably different. The lessons are aimed at giving the students a good foundation in Spanish, while keeping it fun.
Mrs. Janssen translated a Jeopardy® board game into Spanish to play with the kids. Sometimes they play “Go Fish” to learn Spanish vocabulary.
She said the students, which now include her own grandchildren, are “very easy to inspire.... They think it’s really cool to learn a foreign language.”
Mrs. Janssen also secured the same Spanish textbook used at McCook Junior-Senior High for the students through the public school system’s textbook loan program. This sets the St. Patrick graduates up for great success when they move on to high school.
“They have a leg up,” Mrs. Janssen said with no shortage of pride. “They still take the two years of Spanish, but they do very well because they have had snippets of it for the last three years. Of course they have a leg up anyway because their parents care enough to send them to Catholic school, and make sure their homework gets done and all that.”
Becoming adept at a second language also sets up the students for long-term success.
“Many of our kids major in Spanish in college and go to foreign countries to learn more,” Mrs. Janssen Said. “They get very good jobs because [bilingual workers] are hard to get.”
Personally, she’s developed a new respect for elementary teachers.
“When I was teaching high school, we always said we’re working the hardest and all, but now I think it’s the elementary teachers who have it the hardest,” she said. “You’ve got those little ones tugging at your dress all day long!”
As a volunteer, she gets all the joy of teaching without the difficulties.
“You don’t have to worry about lots of meetings and outside-of-school activities — you just get the fun part,” she said. “I just come in and enjoy the people I work with and enjoy the kids and then I go on my merry way.”
She hopes more retired teachers will make some time in their schedules to do a little volunteer work at other Catholic schools.
“I highly recommend it,” she said, “I enjoy it, I really do.”