Soft-spoken teacher's fast pace, devotion to education bring her recognition

June 12, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Sally McNelis considers her morning commute along the Baltimore Beltway her "contemplative time" when, despite the early hour and the high-speed traffic, "I can really focus on what I need for the day."

That's a clue to the pace she keeps.

A pace that includes being head of the English department at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, teaching four classes there, acting as co-chairman of the school improvement committee, writing grants for school projects, returning papers to students the day after they're submitted and critiquing writing even when it's not classwork.

It's a pace that has brought her many informal accolades and almost as many formal honors. Most recently she was Baltimore County's Teacher of the Year in the annual competition of the Maryland State Department of Education.

"I am here at 6:30 a.m. and on a typical evening I finish at 9," said Ms. McNelis, though she usually leaves school about 5 p.m. Ms. McNelis, 53, is finishing her second year at Eastern, but her 31st year of teaching. All but four years have been spent in Baltimore County. Her teaching career began in elementary schools in Harford County, where she lived for a long time before moving to Timonium.

"My husband would tell you that I never relax," she said. "I am a compulsive worker."

But in class, she is soft-spoken and, said some students, lenient VTC her discipline. She allows two friends to sit near each other and talk -- softly and occasionally -- because if she split them up, they would communicate across the room and disrupt the attention of others, she said.

In the same class, when she noticed a student concentrating on something other than his classwork, she leaned over to the young man and said quietly -- almost without interrupting her lecture -- "just put this aside until the end of the period."

"She's not an ordinary teacher," said Eastern 10th-grader Steve Wroblewski, an English honors student. "She knows each person's personality and she respects it. She took time out of what she wanted to do to read my poetry. I can't say enough good things about her."

Neither can her principal, Robert Kemmery, who nominated her for Teacher of the Year and who invited her to Eastern two years ago. "It's a joy to have her in the school," he said.

She's also an excellent role model for other teachers, a compassionate person who helps students and colleagues in unheralded ways and a talented writer who has brought grant money and innovative programs to the school, he said.

"And she has a certain peace about her; she's therapeutic," said Mr. Kemmery, who taught with Ms. McNelis at Perry Hall High School.

She's also organized and thorough in the classroom, giving painstaking directions. "We don't go off the topic much," said 10th-grader Eric Rogers, who appreciates her detailed directions classwork. "Before we do a required assignment, she writes up a half-page. She uses examples from her life a lot and from her writing."

Nevertheless, Ms. McNelis' classes have variety, according to Mike Blasdel. "It's not always the same stuff," he said. "They don't get boring. I like English because it's fun."

One day each week, Ms. McNelis devotes a class period to a "writers' workshop" in which her students work on their essays, talk with her about what they've written and revise work. Another day during the week, her students have a "readers' workshop," during which they can read whatever they choose. "It teaches them to make choices," she said. "When you lose that, you lose a lot of what the world needs, [saying] this is what I like to read."

Because of a space crunch at Eastern, Ms. McNelis does not have her own classroom. She teaches three consecutive 10th-grade English classes in three different rooms, pushing a cart laden with papers, books and color-coded folders from room to room.

She began a recent session by telling her students what the objective for that day's class was and how they would try to meet it. They were to read other students' essays on Julius Caesar, she told them, and "score them holistically," that is, to look at the essay as a whole and determine if the writer accomplished what he or she set out to do.

Ms. McNelis went through a sample paper and a four-point grading scale for her students. "Let's really care about each person's paper and give them as much good feedback as possible," she said. "Be bold. You can give better feedback than I as a teacher would ever be able to find time to give."

"Sally's fun to watch," said Jim Kramer, who teaches his second-period English class in the room Ms. McNelis uses during the third period. "Sometimes I just stay to watch. And that's something when a teacher stays to watch [another teacher]."

Ms. McNelis' students do a lot of writing and most of the time she lets them pick their topics, which the students like. "She gives us a lot of freedom, which other teachers do not do," Eric said.

She's also friendly, patient, fair, yells infrequently and doesn't give much homework, her students said.

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