The National Catholic Education Association has confirmed what everyone at Holy Cross School in North Portland has known for decades — Suzanne DeVaney-Wilkes is one of the best teachers in the country.
The serene DeVaney-Wilkes, who has taught at Holy Cross and nearby Assumption for 34 years, was named Northwest region winner of this year's Distinguished Teacher Award from the NCEA.
"Your hard work and dedication to your students and Holy Cross is affirmed and we could not be happier about your selection," says a note to DeVaney-Wilkes from Kathy Mears, executive director for elementary education at the NCEA.
DeVaney-Wilkes will receive the award April 22 at the NCEA convention in Pittsburgh. Rejoicing has come from several generations of Busy Bees — the coveted designation her second graders can earn by being respectful and staying on task, or lose by goofing off or being mean. "I think I learned how to live a good life in second grade," says Matt Jones, an Assumption graduate and Busy Bee who now has his own family in Chicago.
Placid but nobody's fool, DeVaney-Wilkes keeps a orderly classroom, with nooks for reading and display space for lots of student work. Second graders get opportunities for leadership — monitoring milk delivery, choosing books the whole class will read, tutoring peers. The air always smells good. Past students walk in, take a deep breath, and tender memories of second grade come rushing back.
At Holy Cross Church on many weekends, a second grader or former student or two will slide into the pew next to DeVaney-Wilkes for a hug and a smile. Past students often invite her to birthday bashes, first Communion parties, plays and graduations. Some ask her to be their confirmation sponsor.
She spends weekends each winter and spring in conjunction with parish staff preparing children for the sacraments of reconciliation and first Communion. A mother of two grown children, she is a eucharistic minister and leads second graders in many after-hours service projects, including making table decorations for senior luncheons at the parish. "Suzanne instills respect and love of learning with all her students," says Julie Johnson, principal at Holy Cross and the mother of twins who attend the school. "She has a quiet demeanor and students love to respond to her high expectations. She is clear and direct with her students and communicates with them in a very respectful and loving manner." DeVaney-Wilkes is "faithful, humble, patient, respectful, compassionate and honest," says Nancy Jordan, teacher and librarian at Holy Cross.
"She creates a warm, welcoming learning environment in her classroom to make Jesus the core of all her lessons," Jordan explains.
DeVaney-Wilkes' second graders put it pithily, raising hands and rapidly stating their convictions: "The coolest teacher in the world." "She's awesome. Fun and funny." "She means a lot to me." "She helped me read." "She teaches really well."
DeVaney-Wilkes is humbled by it all. She says the vocation of teaching in a Catholic school just calls on teachers to educate the whole child — academically, developmentally, socially and spiritually.
"I have found it's the little things that can make a big difference," she points out. Observing DeVaney-Wilkes with children for a day reveals a lot of small things done lovingly — a kind word, a quick prayer together, hugs, joy at learning something new, a good laugh and maybe a good cry.
"I hope that the children in my care feel God's love each day, and that they will share that love with others," DeVaney-Wilkes says.
She graduated from Portland State University in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. Her first job was at Assumption teaching second grade. When the school closed in 1986, she moved to Holy Cross and has stayed ever since.
DeVaney-Wilkes is an active member of Holy Cross' Faith Committee, making sure the school excels in its Catholic identity.
DeVaney-Wilkes says among her most rewarding experiences is watching former second graders become teachers. So far, two made a point of asking her to be their mentor during student teaching. One of her protégés, 1990 Holy Cross graduate Anne Storm, herself received the NCEA honor in 2010. Storm taught for 13 years at St. Luke in Woodburn, but is now at Holy Cross teaching kindergarten down the hall from her hero.
Holy Names Sister Mary Ryan, development director at Holy Cross, hired DeVaney-Wilkes in 1979 and has worked close by ever since.
"I have said many times that when a visitor walks into our second grade classroom, one does not have to explain what is going on, as it is evident that learning is happening in each corner," Sister Mary says. "Every parent would love to experience her presence with their precious children."
Holy Cross now has three NCEA-awarded people on board: Father Mark Bachmeier, the pastor, was recognized as the priest most supportive of Catholic education for 2010.