Monday, November 22, 1999

On the job learning/Teacher tries new techniques

On the job learning
Teacher tries new techniques
Milan educator not content to use the same old methods
The Ann Arbor News
By Pamela Appea

Milan, Michigan--Comfortable is one word to describe Mary Mehringer’s multiage classroom at Paddock Elementary in Milan. The TriMaP program, which stands for the triple multiage program, has 67 students in the three interconnected classrooms from the first through third grades.

Mehringer’s homeroom, which has 22 students, starts out a recent morning TriMaP class meetings with a hand-jive dance. And the class enjoys dancing to a variety of songs, including Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” which also happens to be the class’s motto.

At 9:25 a.m., the class begins with a brief version of Show and Tell; reads the highlights of what each student wants to share with the class.

Charlie said he’s lost his eighth tooth so far, after Mehringer asks for the tally. Eric shares that he went behind the scenes of his mother’s business. Maura said she did a back-flip off a trampoline. And it’s William’s birthday today.

A teaching veteran, Mehringer, 58, said she has taught in a multiage classroom for the past three years. She loves the new approach to teaching and watching students grow over the years--an opportunity she feels she never got when teaching students for just one year.

The curriculum is the same as other classrooms, including math, science, language arts, music and Spanish. But in TriMaP the students often have lessons a group. Mehringer will write different questions on the board--at different levels of difficulty--and then all will be given a chance to work out the questions.

Mehringer--the Milan School District’s longest serving teacher-- has taught in the district for 35 years. She’s not the kind of teacher who just pulls out an old planner every September with antiquated ideas and yellowed exercise sheets, said TriMaP teaching colleague Molly Jeppsen.

“She gets very annoyed with people who take the easy way out,” Jeppsen said, adding that Mehringer and others at Paddock make it a priority to learn about New Math or going to teaching workshops. Jeppsen said Mehringer could have retired by now, but chose not to--at least not yet.

And Mehringer also says she loves teaching at Paddock Elementary on Marvin Road, minutes away from downtown Milan. The best thing about teaching, Mehringer says, is that she tries to learn as much from the students as they learn from her.

Because of her determination and devotion to her kids, Mehringer didn’t even let breast cancer slow her down. After surgery Sept. 23, Mehringer was back in school full-time within seven weeks.

Back in 1963, some area school districts didn’t even really want Mehringer and others to fill out an application, she said. The lack of enthusiasm wasn’t because Mehringer, a University of Michigan graduate, wasn’t qualified or because she didn’t have student teaching experience.

At the time, Mehringer said, some school districts didn’t want women teachers with children under age 2 to teach for fear they would take too many sick days.

But Milan didn’t have the no-child rule.

Mehringer didn’t get the job right away. But after a teacher decided to retire mid-year, the Milan superintendent at the time called Mehringer back and brought her on board, and she finished up the school year teaching a fourth-grade class.

“I would never have found that I loved teaching like the way I do. I really feel fortunate that it all worked out,” she said.

When Mehringer first started out, though, she wouldn’t have even been able to imagine multiage teaching.

“When I came in all the kids were in the same reading group reading the same fourth-grade textbook,” she said.

Now her class is divided up into cooperative sub-groups with an equal mix of girls and boys, faster readers and slower readers and leaders together with those who sometimes have trouble paying attention, Mehringer said.

Thinking about her own mother, Rosalie Keelean, who taught in a one-room school house for years for off and on for nearly two decades in central Michigan, Mehringer sees some parallels to the kind of teaching she’s doing now.

“Parents come to know the teachers. Teachers come to know the children over the years,” she said noting that both had a family feel and a tightly-knit closeness.

As for retirement, Mehringer has been thinking of retiring at 65. But she may even follow in her mother’s footsteps, since Keelean continued teaching in Florida after her retirement.

“I’ve not finished everything I wanted to learn yet,” Mehringer said.

Originally published November 22, 1999

Photo Caption: Mary Mehringer, a teacher at Paddock Elementary School in Milan, helps first-grader Elizabeth Wysocki with her spelling during journal writing in her multi-age classroom.
On the left is second-grader Kerry Ashline and on the right, second-grade Patrick Chizek.

Photo Credit: Elli Gurfinkel