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When Mary Jane Butler first walked through the doors of Old Saybrook High School in 1972, she remembers she had long straight hair and wore wire-rimmed glasses. Forty years later, her look may have changed, but her always-cheerful outlook and love of teaching students Spanish hasn't changed one bit.
"I try to be as positive and enthusiastic as I can and passionate about my subject matter. I firmly believe it's my professional responsibility to create a positive learning climate for my students, to come in here every day and be positive," says Mary Jane.
In her teaching of Spanish to five sections of students each day, she works to make sure she connects with each and every student by learning about them, their activities, and about what's important to them. As she explained, she believes that students are more motivated to learn when they know you really care about them.
"I firmly believe that every student can learn. I try to personalize my teaching by making a point to learn about which student is in music, in sports, in drama, and I ask them about it as part of the class discussion," says Mary Jane. "It's all about communication."
And of course, these class discussions occur in Spanish.
The staff of Old Saybrook High School recently organized a surprise celebration to honor Mary Jane and celebrate her 40-year milestone. At the same time, staff members wanted to show her their sincere love and gratitude for her dedicated service over the past 15 years as the school staff's Sunshine Lady.
In that role over 15 years, she's helped cater many baby and wedding showers and organized retirement parties. She's prepared and delivered sympathy baskets, sent cards, and bought small gifts to recognize staff milestones, an illness, or to celebrate happy occasions. But mostly, she always is there, showing she's interested and sincerely cares.
"The staff here, we are very close and we try to take care of each other," says Mary Jane. "I look for special stores to buy little gifts. The people really do appreciate it, like when they return after an illness and they have a little candy bar" waiting for them.
For many years, she's been involved in the Old Saybrook Education Association (OSEA), has in the past co-chaired the scholarship and awards committee and for many years, has co-chaired the annual OSEA scholarship dinner which takes place tonight, Thursday, Nov. 29. The annual fundraising dinner for 250 to 300 people raises enough money each year for the OSEA to award 10 to 12 student scholarships.
"I'm famous for the cake or tart or dessert I bake for the scholarship dinner each year. I always decorate it with fresh flowers. The art teacher, Dana Maccio, has a photographic record of each one I've made,' says Mary Jane with her ever-present smile.
But what's really kept Mary Jane coming back each year to teach is the students.
"It's the relationship with the students that brings me back each year. I have learned so much from them. I enjoy hearing of their talents-and going to support them in their endeavors," whether showing that support means watching a play or going to a sports event, says Mary Jane. "Your enthusiasm spreads when you interact with them-they
She says she has really noticed changes in recent years in the students' eagerness to use the language, now that the schools introduce Spanish to students starting in Kindergarten.
"When I first started teaching it was hard to get them to use the language. Now they're eager to," says Mary Jane.
Standing in front of a print by the artist Diego Rivera, she speaks of his importance.
"He was such an important artist to the Mexican people. At a time when many were not literate, he taught them their country's history through his art, in paintings, in murals. He used indigenous people as his subjects, calling attention to them, raising them up to a different level in society," says Mary Jane, revealing the enthusiasm for her subject matter that no doubt keeps her students engaged-and learning.