Teacher moves to WNC and finds joy in old profession

Barbara Hootman

Stefanie Wielkopolan moved to the Asheville area with her husband last August with no job in sight. A published poet and college and elementary school teacher, she is now a teacher assistant at the Swannanoa Valley Montessori School in Black Mountain.

“When Stefanie came for an interview last summer, I remember being taken with her smile and with her wonderful laugh,” said Diane Jackson, the school’s media coordinator. “Then I asked her to share the book of poetry she had published with her students, and I was laughing and crying. I knew we needed her at our school.

“She has bonded with staff, parents and especially with the students. Her patience with the students is remarkable. She listens to them, and they are very open with her. She works with our younger children and has great rapport with the elementary students.”

Wielkopolan takes her writing and teaching, intimate parts of her life, seriously.

“I studied creative writing and global issues concerning women at Western Michigan University,” she said. “When I moved to Pittsburgh, I studied more creative writing at Chatham University. I write poetry and have published a book of my poems, ‘Border Theory,’ in 2011.

“It is a collection of poems about relationships with different places and people. Mostly it is about relationships with Pennsylvania and Michigan. I love the everyday aspects of life like the people walking to the bus every morning and what they say to each other, and the guy who makes the coffee, and what he feels and thinks. I like the feeling of intimacy in those relationships.”

Wielkopolan said she felt confined in Michigan, but when she moved to Pittsburgh she felt liberated because she could be whomever she wished.

“I’ve never lived in a small town before, so working in Black Mountain is a new experience for me,” she said. “I’ve noticed that my writing is much more abstract and less narrative now.”

Before coming here, Wielkopolan worked with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a nonprofit organization in Detroit. Since 1995, InsideOut has led more than 50,000 Detroit youth on adventures using poetry, helping them become better students and more engaged citizens. The organization also publishes the work of student poets.

“The InsideOut Literacy Arts Project puts writers like me in the Detroit public school system with elementary-level students,” she said. “I had three classes once a week. The students didn’t feel so constricted and could write about the things they couldn’t talk about. They could talk about what they felt, using poetry. InsideOut taught me to really listen to kids.”

Each Detroit public school participating in the project produced a book of poetry.

“I chose a minimum of one poem from each student to be published,” Wielkopolan said. “Some had more. Many were short but expressive. The students also did the art work to illustrate the stories. By the time all the poetry was collected, there was a nice size book. The students’ poetry was really powerful.”

In April, Swannanoa Valley Montessori students will be studying poetry.

After teaching eight years at the college and elementary levels, Wielkopolan was beginning to burn out before coming to Western North Carolina and joining the school staff, she said.

“So many of the students were angry and frustrated, and I didn’t know what they needed, so I was frustrated,” she said. “After coming to Montessori last August, my feelings toward teaching have changed. I have been rejuvenated by the children and by the Montessori method of teaching.”

Wielkopolan plans to spend the summer studying the Montessori method of teaching while staying with family in Michigan.

“I am excited every day that I come to work,” she said. “The day just rolls out, and even when there is conflict, it isn’t frustrating. When I accepted the position I knew I would have to step out of my comfort zone and go on field trips like caving. The kids felt a sense of accomplishment and so did I. I did something new, and it took me out of my safe zone. I’m having fun as a teacher.”

Jen Hermance, the lead elementary teacher at the school, is pleased that Wielkopolan plans to study to become a certified Montessori teacher.

“She will make an excellent Montessori teacher,” Hermance said. “She is top-notch with the students and engages them easily. She interacts and talks with the students on their level. She doesn’t wait, but rather dives into the Montessori way of teaching and learning.”

Katie Hanning, the school’s director, said she would like to clone Wielkopolan.

“Stefanie sees the ‘positive’ in each moment, draws laughter from her fellow staff and is supportive of the greater picture of each day’s events,” Hanning said. “Her calm presence complements the culture in our classrooms. She connects with the elementary students in a manner which draws out their desire to investigate further into their class work.

“The students know they can depend on Stefanie to support them where they are each day. And they flourish beautifully in her presence.”