On May 19, Union Mine High School teacher Colleen Guglielmana was honored at the Whitman College graduation ceremony with the Whitman College Distinguished Teaching Award. The award recognizes an outstanding elementary or secondary teacher who has had a significant influence on one of Whitman’s graduating seniors, in this case, Ryann Savino.
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Savino, who graduated from UMHS in 2008, nominated Guglielmana because, “Mrs. G. deserves every possible recognition for the effort and love she puts forth in her work as a teacher,” Savino said. “She has a gift, an ability to connect with each student in her classroom and make them feel worthy. Cornel West writes, ‘What education is in its deepest sense — the turning of the soul.’ Mrs. G breathes education in that sense, and I will forever be grateful for how she has impacted and added color to my life.”
Each year Whitman College, a private liberal arts school in Walla, Walla, Wash., gives its graduating seniors the opportunity to nominate a teacher who inspired and helped them.
“The award was started by one of Whitman’s professors whose wife was a fifth-grade teacher,” said Guglielmana. “He thought it would be great if someone who had helped a student get to Whitman received recognition.”
After filling out the nomination form, students must write a paper giving the reasons for their nomination. The paper is reviewed by a panel of students who then select the teacher to be honored.
“I hadn’t seen or talked to Ryann in four years,” said Guglielmana. “She had great connections with a number of teachers at Union Mine, so I would never have thought she would have nominated me.”
About Mrs. G.
Guglielmana, 35, teaches English, reading and creative writing at UMHS, where she has been a faculty member for 10 years. She also has a freshman and a sophomore section of AVID students, a specialized program at UMHS designed to motivate and assist at-risk students to go on to college. She is married and has a 4-year-old son, Rocco, is working on earning her master’s degree in Special Education and does ultra running for relaxation. She is passionate about her students and the challenges that many of them overcome daily, just to be in school.
“I had pneumonia and mononucleosis this spring at the same time,” said Guglielmana. “Whitman College kept calling me at home, but I just hung up on them. I figured it was some sort of solicitation.”
Finally Maura Sorkin from Whitman contacted UMHS Principal Tony DeVille, who then called Guglielmana and told her to take the call from Whitman.
“It took at least two weeks for me to be able to digest the news,” said Guglielmana. A flurry of e-mails from Whitman let her know her whole family would be flown to Walla Walla to stay in the Whitman Guest Mansion courtesy of the college and that Eric Idle, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame, would be the commencement speaker.
“We were treated so well and made to feel special. When we arrived there was a huge gift basket with all kinds of things in it for Rocco and all the professors came over to talk with us,” said Guglielmana.
Dinner at Whitman’s President George Bridges’ home brought Ryann and Guglielmana together again. “I was a little nervous, but I met her parents for the first time and they sat with us,” she said. “The other honorees, Eric Idle and Dr. Morton, the greatest living composer, were very approachable. It was an intimate setting and we just all laughed together.”
While Rocco and Ryann’s 12-year-old brother, Jack, explored the huge Guest Mansion from top to bottom, Guglielmana was fitted for the cap and gown she wore onstage during the commencement. “Eric Idle’s commencement speech started off with a fart joke about the queen, but it was a great speech and a good balance between reverence for the graduation and humor,” said Guglielmana.
Guglielmana was honored at the graduation ceremony, receiving a plaque and a small stipend.
“We want to put $100 of the stipend each year toward creating a scholarship fund for Whitman and hopefully help get a kid from Union Mine to Whitman to pay this forward,” she said. “It’s a fabulous school.”
Savino wasn’t one of Guglielmana’s at-risk students. “She traveled abroad for her junior year and when she came back, her friends talked her into signing up for one of my classes,” said Guglielmana. “It was an extra English class for her; she didn’t need it.” The Youth in Conflict, designed for at-risk students, focused on young adult literature and was an eye-opener for Savino for content, fellow students and Guglielmana herself.
When Ryann and Guglielmana met for the first time in four years, they both cried.
“Even though we’re both tough chicks,” said Guglielmana. “And we immediately started talking about the books we read during class that year.”
“This nomination was just a small gesture to show Mrs. G how much I appreciate her and all the heart and soul she puts into teaching. It was also just amazing to know that a teacher from El Dorado County, Calif. was going to be honored at a nationally renowned Private Liberal Arts College in southeastern Washington,” wrote Savino in an e-mail to the Mountain Democrat. “Graduation naturally felt like my time to reflect and thank everyone who helped me along my journey — it was a celebration of all of them, my parents, my brothers, my Mrs. G, everyone.”
“She said I took the time to listen and encourage,” said Guglielmana of Savino’s nomination. “I told her if she found what she was passionate about, everything would work out. There is no student I know that has been more true for than Ryann.”
The experience brought Guglielmana full circle. “It reminded me of the impact teachers have on kids,” she said. “As teachers we get into our routines and we forget about that impact. Everything you do matters. For some kids, your smile might be the only one they see that day.
“It’s easy to be dismissive of kids, especially when you’re busy. What makes me special is not being dismissive. This is the love of my life and it’s the greatest job on the planet.”
Savino, who graduated from Whitman with a degree in Environmental Humanities, is currently working with Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and will be working with AmeriCorps in Utah.She may pursue a career in teaching.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.