Unsung Hero: Janice Parker, born to teach

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PORTLAND — When she was in fourth grade, Janice Parker recalled, her teacher said she was a “pain” because she would finish her work early.

“She pointed to two boys in the class and told me to teach them how to read,” Parker said. “So I’d take them into a closet at school and teach them how to read. I even made out report cards for them to take home and have their parents sign.

“One parent came to see the principal, wondering why they had gotten a report card from a person named Janice Parker. The principal told her she knew who Janice Parker was, but she didn’t know why they’d received a report card from her. The principal asked my teacher, who said she hadn’t known I’d sent out report cards. I thought I was going to get in big trouble, but I didn’t.”

In addition to her in-school “teaching” duties, Parker would work with kids in her neighborhood. “I’d prepare lessons for them on my chalk board and they’d come to my house and tutor them.”

After graduating from Deering High School, Parker earned a degree from the University of Southern Maine, where she majored in English and minored in psychology and education. She then taught at the Reed School and the West School, before going to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow School in 1981. She taught third and fourth grades for 29 years at Longfellow, until she retired in 2010.

Such longevity yields sharp insights for a dedicated teaching professional.

“I tried to build the kiddos up,” Parker said. “I wanted every kid to know that he or she was good at something, whatever it was: making art, doing math, making a presentation about bears, whatever. Being good at something is so important for building confidence.”

Actually, it’s a misnomer to say that Parker “retired in 2010,” because she went right back to Longfellow in the fall of 2010 to volunteer four days a week. And she’s been volunteering ever since.

The first year she gave extra help to advanced readers. For the next two years she helped out in a kindergarten class, working with the students who were advanced in math or reading.

During the past school year, Parker taught English to two 9-year-olds: Aws, a boy from Iraq, and Sandra, a girl from Rwanda.

“I had had no training in teaching English,” Parker admitted, “so they basically helped me teach them. I’d show pictures to convey different meanings of the same word.”

Sometimes Parker throws her whole self into her lessons, getting under a table, for example, to demonstrate the concept of “under,” or behind a door to convey the concept “behind.” She even brought a live lobster to school to show to the kids and then cooked it for them to eat the next day.

“Aws and Sandra are very driven,” Parker said. “They really want to learn. They’re always asking, ‘Can you give us more.?’ And they’re a joy to work with; always making me laugh. Their teachers tell me that it’s amazing how far they’ve come this year.”

Parker said she’ll keep volunteering at Longfellow School for as long as they need her. Apparently, she’s heeding the sage advice she’s been giving to hundreds of students over the years:

“Try to find something you’re good at and then do your very best at it.”

Sidebar Elements

Janice Parker with students Sandra, left, and Aws.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.