Some relationships profoundly influence the direction of our lives, and my friendship with Christine Fernsler is one that serves as a testament to the power of an individual to positively impact those around her.
Our first meeting was during my interview process. Richard Lodish shared with me that I would interview with a beloved teacher who had been at Sidwell Friends for many years. Moreover, he stated unequivocally that this teacher embodied Quaker values, had a deep understanding of children, and was truly gifted in the classroom. I recall feeling a bit intimidated at hearing all of Richard’s praise for Christine. In hindsight, Richard knew Christine well and the picture he painted of her stood the test of time. We left Richard’s office and walked to the Grade 2 classroom together to meet with Christine.
I have often remarked that the moment I entered the Grade 2 classroom that day, I wished for nothing more than to call it my own. It was as though I had arrived home after a long journey. Why did the classroom resonate so much with me? Quite simply put, the classroom was the visible manifestation of Christine’s teaching ethic. Christine believed in the power of creating safe, loving, and accepting spaces for children and adults. The space exuded warmth and a calm unusual in a classroom lived in by young children. I stood in the center of the room and marveled at the attention to detail and the clear value of the aesthetic that created a community of learners, for learners.
I was impressed and excited to meet the person responsible for creating such a wonderful environment for children. I was not disappointed. Christine was warm and engaging, welcoming and enthusiastic. We sat for hours that afternoon discussing our teaching philosophies, our greatest hopes as educators, our understanding of children and child development, and our hopes for the future. I was impressed by Christine’s candor, her understanding of children, and her deeply-held conviction that children needed to feel safe in order to take risks. At that time I had no way of knowing that we would become partners, or that in the months and years to come we would also forge a relationship as compatriots, confidants, and most importantly friends, but those initial moments hinted at the possibility.
In truth, I wasn’t looking for a mentor, but I found an incredible one when I became Christine’s teaching partner. I taught side by side with Christine for five glorious years, and I feel deeply fortunate for the honor. Christine let her life speak through her teaching, and in so doing positively influenced the lives of her students and her colleagues. In her presence, I witnessed a master teacher at work, and my own teaching improved as a result. It doesn’t surprise me that through her continual encouragement and support Christine guided me to grow, learn and improve as a teacher. After all, in our years together I watched her work that same magic with the students in our class.
Christine had a true understanding of the precious nature of childhood, of the importance of creating a safe harbor for the children in her care, and of the role of connections and relationships in empowering others. She valued the power of metaphor in teaching young children, watching her lilies come into full bloom each year. She also understood the importance of classroom ceremonies and traditions in creating community connections for her students. She had great faith in her students and what was possible for them to accomplish. More importantly, she recognized that holding high expectations for students wasn’t enough. Students needed to be supported academically and emotionally if they were to meet those expectations.
Christine understood that the oft-overlooked details mattered greatly in setting the classroom tone. A classroom party was better with the cloth tablecloths (which often needed to be pressed), the class punchbowl, and a tasteful centerpiece. The artifacts displayed for our Theme Study needed to be selected with care to set the stage for learning. Her dedication to her students was visible in the attention to detail and the effort she put into each and every lesson and unit. It was visible in the care she took to create a beautiful classroom and learning space. It was visible in the gentle manner in which she spoke with her students and colleagues.
Arriving at Sidwell in 1970, Christine was deeply committed to the school, her students, her colleagues, and the community at large. A Quaker herself, Christine beautifully interwove the testimonies into the learning environment, making the Quaker values come alive for her students. She served as the inspiration for the creation of the Quaker tapestries, which now adorn our Lower School halls. Moreover, Christine was deeply passionate about the power and importance of service in the Lower School, working tirelessly to ensure that the service opportunities afforded our students would positively impact the community while also engaging the students to put forth their energy, effort, and hearts in the endeavor.
For me, it is impossible to wander our Lower School, or stand in the midst of my classroom, without acknowledging the debt owed to Christine. Christine taught me many lessons in our time together and I found her motivation, vision, and energy to be truly inspiring. Her values, her steady presence, her wisdom and her compassion deeply influenced so many in our community. While we miss you, dear friend, your legacy lives on in those whose lives you have touched so graciously.