Reading, writing, respect

History: From one-room schoolhouses to MSPAP, Evelyn Svoboda has seen it.

June 06, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

When Evelyn Svoboda began her teaching career, times were different. The pay was meager -- a few thousand dollars. Women were expected to quit work when they became pregnant. And classes were tiny -- she once taught five children in a one-room Montana schoolhouse that lacked indoor plumbing.

Over the years, she has watched changes in her profession: increasing pay and improvements in the treatment of women. She has also seen a difference in her pupils: more distractions, more discipline problems and less time spent on homework.

Now, as Svoboda wraps up a 30-year career and says goodbye to her last class -- the third-graders at Crofton Elementary School -- she regards retirement with sadness and trepidation.

"Everyone tells me I will love it," Svoboda, 60, says as she looks around a classroom decorated with artwork fashioned from colorful construction paper and paint. "But I still get teary-eyed about it."

So do many of her pupils and colleagues, adding that the veteran educator brings patience and compassion to a job that requires both -- and more.

"She has a genuine respect for children of every age, their opinions and their feelings," says Jane Doyle, a former Crofton Elementary secretary whose three children were taught by Svoboda. "She knew respect was a two-way street. She was a master teacher who knew how to discipline children while gaining their respect."

The teacher's quick wit and attention to detail made her a lively presence in a classroom of 8- and 9-year-olds. She challenged her students, they say, with tricky spelling words such as "whole" and "hole," and the brain buster "Mr. Zacharko," the school's principal.

"I like Mrs. Svoboda the best," wrote Lilia Farmanara in a book she titled "My Favorite Third Grade Teacher." "She is kind, helpful and always works hard. Even my mom thinks that my brother should have Mrs. Svoboda next year."

Svoboda, who spent 26 years teaching third-graders at Crofton Elementary, is one of about 130 teachers retiring this year from Anne Arundel schools.

The mother of four and grandmother of one (plus three on the way) has survived a host of schoolhouse trends, from phonics to whole language back to phonics; from multiple-choice tests and rote memorization of facts to the Maryland Student Performance Assessment Program, which tests analytical thinking.

"I think teachers are better off these days," she says, recalling times without social workers or guidance counselors. "There are so many other people to help you. When I started out, I was on my own."

A school of five

The daughter of a housewife and auto mechanic, Svoboda grew up in McLaughlin, S.D., a town of about 600 people in the state's northwestern corner. Women had few options back then. Most got married and settled in and around the farming town.

A few, like Svoboda, went to college and began careers.

"Well, you could be a nurse or a teacher," she recalls. "I thought it would be nicer to work as a teacher with children."

But after graduating from Northern State Teachers College in 1958, she found the $3,800 annual salary that South Dakota offered its teachers not nearly enough to support a single woman's modest lifestyle.

So she moved to Fort Benton, Mont., where she took a teaching job for $4,200 a year. There she met and married her husband, Jim, who was an aspiring insect physiologist, and took her second teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse 18 miles outside Bozeman, then a farming community.

Anceny School -- a shack, really -- had an outhouse and heat from an oil-burning stove. Svoboda's wooden desk was in the front of the room, with a bench alongside for pupils who needed help.

Her pupils -- one first-grader, two third-graders, one fifth-grader, and one sixth-grader -- sat youngest to oldest. They ate cold, home-packed lunches at their desks and filled their cups with water from a bucket.

Svoboda would give the older students assignments to work on quietly while she taught the younger students spelling, math and reading. The lessons were simple then: some reading aloud, doing math problems or memorizing important dates and facts.

Her job was simpler then. There were no observations from administrators, no daily "outcomes" to learn in preparation for the MSPAP, no misbehaving students and no angry phone calls from parents.

`Setting an example'

In a town such as Bozeman, everyone knew one another's business, Svoboda recalls. Teachers were considered pillars of the community and expected to be models of respectability. Parents paid her salary and she was often invited to their homes for dinner.

"You could not be seen drinking in a bar or smoking," she says. "You were setting an example and were very much respected."

That school closed six months after Svoboda began teaching there, and students were bused into town. She took a teaching job in a neighboring school district before she became pregnant with her first child in 1961.

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