FACES OF FAITH
Jean Denton is retiring this spring after 35 years teaching kindergarten at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Pierre during the school’s 60th anniversary year. She has taught school a total of 43 years, including her years in the Pierre public schools.
This month she talked to Capital Journal Reporter Stephen Lee about why she loves teaching in a faith-based school. This is an edited version of the interview. And this online edition is expanded from the one that appeared in the Friday, April 19, newspaper.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Pierre. I went to Riggs High. I went to college at USD in Vermillion. Got my undergraduate degree in 1974 and my masters degree in elementary education in 1977.
Q: Did you always want to be an elementary teacher?
A: I did! I wanted to play school in the house when I was little. I made bulletin boards and did all of that. Way back to the beginning. I loved to erase the board.
Q: You must have had a teacher who inspired you?
A: Yes. I went to Lincoln Elementary School in Pierre and one teacher there, I usually try to emulate: Lois Thompson, in the third grade. She just passed away. She was just a kind lady and she struck a chord with me
Q: So, were your parents teachers?
A: No. Mom was a secretary and my dad was an Associated Press reporter, Harold Milner. He used to work at the Capital Journal many years ago. He had an office in the Capitol. My folks married in 1941.
Q: So you taught at St. Joseph’s right out of college?
A: No, I taught in the public school in Pierre.
A: Because I could go half-time. I had small children at the time and St. Joseph’s didn’t have kindergarten then. I was at Washington School for six years in third grade and two years in second grade.
Q: Then you started at St. Joseph’s?
A: I helped start the kindergarten here.
Pastor Steve Barnett (now Monsignor Steve Barnett in Sioux Falls), and I were talking and he said if they could get enough kids for a kindergarten class, that would be a half-time position. So I said I would love to do that and be able to teach and stay home to be with my kids.
When my kids started college, I went back to full-time.
SoI taught half-time for 17 years and 18 years full-time here.
Q: What is it you like about teaching kindergarten?
A: It’s a lot of fun. Not restful. You never sit down, no time at your desk until the kids leave.
Q: How many children do you have?
Q: So you taught them in kindergarten at St. Joseph’s?
A: No, I did not teach them. I sent them to public school. I did not want my own children in my own classroom. Just knowing their personalities, I didn’t think it would work as well with my own. They came over to St. Joseph’s in first grade.
Q: Usually the pay at a Catholic elementary school is less than at a public school, isn’t it? Was that a tough choice?
A: Well, maybe what we were able to give to the church monetarily each week wasn’t as much. But I figured with the difference in salary, I was contributing to the school and the church by teaching here, rather than teaching at public school.
And it’s been a delight to teach them and carry on my faith to them. And we have wonderful, supportive parents at the school.
Q:Did you grow up Catholic?
A: No, I was Methodist. Went to First Methodist in Pierre. My grandfather was the one. When it came to faith, I had a deep yearning. But I wasn’t in a home that was active or involved in religion. And I wanted to be, so I attended the Methodist church with my grandfather.
Q: What was his name?
A: Emil Seidlitz. He was a barber. My grandmother’s name was Mabel. They lived very near the church and never had a car. So my folks would drop me off there and he and I would walk to church. And when we came back to their apartment, I would make lunch for them. I was like in eighth grade.
Q: So how did you meet your husband, Michael?
A: We met in high school. He grew up Catholic. He attended St. Joe’s school when it started 60 years ago. After I met Mike, we attended both churches. And I became a Catholic.
Q: What is his work?
A: He’s in banking.
Q: Any of your children teachers?
A: Nope. I’ve got two in finance like their dad. One in sales and one is a massage therapist. Our oldest son is in California, next son is in Denver, our youngest son is in Pierre and our youngest, our daughter, is in Denver. We have three grandchildren.
Q: So do your grandchildren go to church with you and then come over to your home and make lunch for you, like you did for your grandparents?
A They are still pretty young. But sometimes they will say, "Grandma, why are you going to church?" And I say, "I always have to go because I am so blessed."
Q: How big are the classes at St. Joseph's?
A: We have about 35 in each grade through high school (including the parish's students in the public high school.) St. Joseph's is kindergarten through 5th grade. We used to have first through eighth grade years ago.
And now we have two classes in each grade, K-5.
So we have 34 in kindergarten, 17 in my class and 17 in Marquette Brink’s class. It keeps growing. Next year there will be 21 in each class.
Q: The students aren’t all Catholic?
A: No. Probably a fourth of the (students) are non-Catholic. There are families that want a faith-based education.
Q: You must have seen a lot of changes in your career in schools and students?
A: The biggest change in kindergarten is the curriculum has gone from just learning your letters to actually teaching reading. I am teaching now what used to be called first grade.
Q: As a Catholic school teacher, do you pray with your students?
A: Oh, yes. We pray many times throughout the day. And then religion is taught every day. And weekly Masses. The whole school attends Mass together.
Now during the season of Lent, we are preparing for Easter. My class was going to be leading the stations of the cross. During Lent, each class has a turn each week.
I have certain prayers I am expected to teach them. So we pray right away in the morning. Then we pray at lunch, of course. Wen we line up before we come inside, we pray. Then if there are problems during the day, with someone in the class gets too excited, I might just stop and take a deep breath, . .. and pray. So they can see faith in action.
And we pray for families. We have one family whose father is in the hospital for weeks, so the whole faith community is supporting them. Another student said, “Can we put my dad on the prayer board?” So each class has a long list of people they are praying for.
The mother of one student needed a kidney transplant and we prayed on that for a long time. It took about three years, but she got a donor and a transplant.
People will call the school and say, “My sister is having surgery, could you have the school pray for them?” They come back and say, “God must hear and answer the prayers of those little children.”
We address them as “kids of Christ.” So I can say, “Kids of Christ, look what we have to take down. Someone just had a baby and we can take down this prayer now from the prayer board. The baby is here, all safe and sound. We can be concerned with other people who need our prayers.”
Q: I wonder how many students you have had over the years?
A: 963. I just counted up how many.
Q: That’s including this semester, 963 exactly?
Q: That's amazing. So you have taught two generations or more of some families. What's that like?
A: Second generations. I have taught one family where I have had all six children. And I have had many families with three, or four or five of their children. And I have had many children of people I used to have in class. There are certain things you do. Like at our birthday party for Jesus as part of the Christmas program, we call it Reindeer Roundup. And we have them dress up like reindeer. Someone will say, “Did my dad have to wear a reindeer costume?” And I say, “Yes, your dad had to wear one.” And I have pictures on file I can show them of their parents as a reindeer.
Q: Your last day with your students, are you ready for that?
A: The last day of school is May 21. But it will be May 20 with these kids. They will have kindergarten graduation on May 20. On May 21 we have roundup with next year's kids. Just a short day.
Q: Who will be teaching in your classroom next year?
A: Erin Oxford. She taught with me five years before she went to the public school. So I can walk away with no worries. They are in good hands.
Q: What will you do in retirement?
A: Do some traveling with my husband, see our grandkids. And my plan is to find where I can serve others in the community. I've got in mind some places I can volunteer. And I would also like to do some volunteering at school.
Q: You so clearly love your work, more than many people feel about their jobs, it seems like.
A: It's just wonderful to share your faith and hope to foster faith in young children. And hope that some of it will be there when they need it at tough times in their life.