Fairfield Now - Summer 2008
Sr. Julianna's 60 years of teaching
By Meredith Guinness
Sister Julianna speaks to schoolchildren in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, in 1955
Sister Julianna Poole, S.S.N.D., stood at the blackboard before a fifth-grade class in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, doubting herself. She was 25, had never been out of the United States, and she didn't speak enough Spanish to direct her students to the 'front' or 'back' of their Spanish-English dictionaries.
Her lip began to quiver.
A young boy tugged at her habit, looking up into her worried eyes. "No cry, Sister," he said. "No cry."
She smiles at the 55-year-old memory. "That was all I needed. That's the reason why I am who I am today."
Who she is today is a woman on the verge of a new chapter in life. After 60 years as a grade-school teacher, high school principal, and beloved professor in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), Sr. Julianna, now 80, will retire this May from a profession that she sees as a personal blessing and an awesome responsibility.
"I love to teach. I just love to teach," she said. "But whenever I begin a class, I'm frightened in a way because, the older you get, the more you realize what kind of impact you have. And you know when it's time to change something. Like now. It's time. I know."
Sr. Julianna was raised in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of three children of Irish immigrants, Johanna Kavanagh and George Poole. "Brooklyn was a great place to be," she recalled. "Everyone on the block walked home for lunch, had two parents, and got along with each other."
Students gather with Sister Julianna to celebrate outside award-winning St. Francis School in New Haven in 1986.
Her mother was a wonderful cook and she has fond memories of Sunday dinner with Irish bread baked in a cast-iron frying pan. Her father was a bus driver in New York City. At that time, drivers had to count the money taken in during their working hours. Her father could add numbers faster than anyone she knew and, as a little girl, she was in awe at this accomplishment.
Sr. Julianna entered the Sisters of Notre Dame convent in 1945, having spent her grade-school years in Catholic schools. After three years in Baltimore learning to be a Sister and a teacher, she was sent to the former St. Joseph School in Bridgeport (now Thomas Merton House). Just 20 years old, she was to teach a combined third- and fourth-grade class. Bernadette Voytek, an accounts payable manager at Fairfield, was one of her first students. "I just remember her being so tall and so pretty and so sweet," Voytek said. "She impressed me so much."
In 1953, she was transferred, this time to Puerto Rico. "My mother said, "Did you volunteer?' I said no. So she said, "Well, it's God's will.' "
Portrait of an educator
And that's how she found herself standing at the blackboard in Aguas Buenas. Each evening, she spent time translating a few lines from the science book from English into Spanish, so she'd be ready to teach her class in the morning. She and the children encouraged each other, agreeing to only laugh with each other, not at each other's missteps. "They were wonderful," she said.
As her language skills grew, Sr. Julianna moved to Notre Dame High School in Caguas, where she taught history, and eventually on to assignments as principal of Colegio San Agustin in San Juan and Academia del Perpetuo Socorro in Miramar. In addition, she was a student herself, earning a B.A. from the Colegio Universitario del Sagrado Corazón in Puerto Rico, master's degrees from the University of Puerto Rico and Seton Hall University, and a doctorate from the University of Rochester.
By 1982, she knew it was time to leave Puerto Rico. "I just thought it was time to come back up," she said simply.
She served as vice principal at Hartford's South Catholic High School and then as principal of St. Francis School in New Haven, a school she felt needed a self-esteem boost. The U.S. Department of Education announced it would award national Excellence in Education awards, and Sr. Julianna told her new staff they would be vying for one. They were incredulous - at first.
Sister Julianna stands third from left in the
back row at her high school graduation in
1945 from Holy Angels Academy in
Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Posing with nuns in Poland, where she traveled
to teach English to fellow schools sisters
of Notre Dame.
Visiting with cousins in Limerick, Ireland,
sporting her Fairfield sweatshirt.
Sister Julianna walks with her father,
George Poole, at Coney Island, Circa 1963
"But we did it," said Sister Julianna, hiding a smile behind her hand. "We were one of 60 schools in the nation. They say the traffic stopped in New Haven that day. You know, every cop in New Haven at the time had gone to St. Francis!"
Dr. Eva Diaz Edwards, an adjunct professor in GSEAP, met Sr. Julianna while working in bilingual education in New Haven, and said Sr. Julianna's humility belies vast contributions to the very idea of multicultural education. She helped found Puerto Rico Teachers of English to Students of Other Languages (PRTESOL) and provides key teacher development opportunities for Connecticut teachers. In fact, Fairfield is the only Connecticut university with a TESOL/bilingual education program.
"Sr. Julianna inspires dedication and confidence," Dr. Edwards said. "Her laughter and excitement in even the smallest things around her help those who listen to make connections between the apparently small and the universal."
Eventually, Sr. Julianna decided she'd like to try her hand at teaching teachers. She joined the faculty of GSEAP in 1988, and is chair of TESOL, Foreign Language, and Bilingual/Multicultural Education. "Most people in leadership positions in the state are people she's either taught or worked with," said Dr. Susan Franzosa, dean, GSEAP. "She just constantly amazes me with her commitment and her penetrating intelligence."
"She is an amazing mentor and supporter," said Chrystie Cruz '07, now a graduate student. "In class she always asked questions not because she was testing us, but because she wanted to learn more about what we were showing her."
Hyewon Noh, a graduate assistant preparing for student teaching, agreed. "Her constant interest and care has brought me this far, I believe," she said. "Sometimes, she would even worry about me not eating on time! You don't usually get that kind of concern from your professors."
|Sister Julianna Poole teaches one of her last classes at Fairfield.|
This May, Sr. Julianna will celebrate 60 years as both a professed nun and a teacher. She hopes some of her six nieces and nephews can join her at Commencement, when she will receive an honorary degree. After May 18, she'll head back to her Fairfield apartment and to future volunteer opportunities. True to her nature, she leaves content and ready for whatever comes.
"If you have a grateful heart," she said, "even when difficult things happen, you still have something to be grateful for."