headshot phyllis_2955-JI started first grade wanting a college diploma. I had just seen my father earn his, and after a few weeks with my teacher Alvina at Yoder School, I could see my way to that diploma. And I knew what I wanted to do with it—become a teacher just like Alvina.

In that three-room school full of Amish and Mennonites I read with third grade, solved math with second grade, and spelled with first grade; that is, when I wasn’t painting on the easel or identifying wild flowers from the fields.

But then we moved to Flint, Michigan. There in the Rustbelt, where no one knew a Mennonite, I sat in the same desk all day counting the minutes to the end of school. I wondered how I could become a good teacher when I didn’t have one. But I’d been taught to stick with a goal, and I did. In my grade school years in Flint, at a community college, and at a state university, I kept looking for the magic of Yoder School.

I finally found it again at Antioch College, a haven for philosophers, artists, and left-over hippies in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I went to class with maxi skirts, dreadlocks, piercings, and tattoos. I wrote papers, not tests, proposed independent studies, and debated—finding again the liveliness in learning I recalled from my days with the Amish at Yoder School.

Then for thirty years I taught, trying to bring Yoder School to students. I spent half my career with gifted students. I also taught middle schoolers, inmates at a state prison, parents of at-risk preschoolers, and college students.

When I locked my classroom door for the last time, I knew I had made lots of mistakes in my three decades of teaching, but I also knew, that, although I had not recreated Yoder School, I had taught with the passion of Alvina and brought richness to my students.

Now I’m retired. But I’m still teaching—my grandchildren and teachers who consult with me. I lead tours at the Columbus Museum of Art and adjunct at a college. And I’m still learning about learning.

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