'It's in the blood': Children of educators become teachers

News-DemocratAugust 18, 2013 

For teachers' kids, playing school, visiting classrooms and attending school events were the norm. It's no surprise these children have grown up to be educators themselves.

We recently sat down with three families of educators to see what life was like for them growing up and what life is like for them now.

Miller family

Kristan Sonnenberg calls her mother every morning before work.

"We swap stories," said Kristan, a sixth-grade teacher. "And offer advice," said her mom, Linda Michael, also a sixth-grade teacher. She often reminds her daughter to "take a minute and breathe" and "remember to do one thing at a time."

Both work for Belleville School District 118. Kristan, 26, of Millstadt, teaches English, reading and science at Union School. Linda, 53, of Swansea, teaches English, math and social studies at Abraham Lincoln School.

Linda's father K. Lane Miller, 85, of Belleville, worked in education for 35 years as teacher, principal and superintendent. Her mother, Ann Miller, 85, taught fourth grade for 20 years in Millstadt. Both Ann and K. Lane retired in 1985.

The Miller family moved to Belleville in 1963 when K. Lane got the principal job at Belleville West High School. In 1967, he became superintendent of Belleville School District 201, a job he held for 18 years until 1985.

"If I hadn't gone into education, I would have been a farmer," said K. Lane, who grew up on a farm in Mercer County.

Linda always knew she wanted to follow in her parents' footsteps. "I guess it's in the blood," she said. "I don't remember ever wanting to do anything else."

She often played school with her two siblings, Debra and Mark. Her sister Debra Roth also has a teaching degree. She runs the education foundation for Arizona Food Marketing Alliance in Phoenix, Ariz.

Linda worked at an alternative school run by St. Clair County after college before being hired at Abraham Lincoln in 1984.

"I love the sixth-grade age," she said. "The curriculum is great, because it's so varied. It's something new every day. No year has ever been alike."

Linda plans to retire at the end of this school year. She joked she'll "breathe a heavy sigh." She'll miss working with the children and her colleagues, but she won't miss the stress of worrying about her students and the new laws and regulations that impact school districts.

Linda knew Kristan would become a teacher.

"I could see her teaching early on. She was always the teacher," Linda recalled. "She read early and always has been very articulate. She hardly let her little brother have a word in edgewise."

Kristan enjoyed watching her mother grade papers and got to help sometimes.

"I never really wanted to do anything else ever since I was little," she said. "I always wanted to be a teacher. I always wanted to go to school with my mom."

Having a succession of educators "makes a close-knit family," K. Lane said. "We can talk shop anytime."

"All the time," Kristan added.

Kristan and Linda often create lesson plans together.

"That's a lot of fun." Linda said. "We're at the same grade level, so we can plan together."

"It's nice to have an expert to go to," said Kristan.

The best thing about being a teacher for Kristan is making a difference in the lives of children. "That's why we do it -- for the kids," she said.

The worst thing about teaching, Kristan said, is the fact "some of the decisions that impact education are not made by people in education. They don't understand what the job really entails," she said. "As educators, we want to do what's best for kids. The people making the laws don't always understand what's best for the kids."

Barre family

When Connie Barre and her two daughters Kelly West and Jessica Ysursa get together, all they talk about is school and kids.

"When we start talking about school, he walks out of the room," Kelly said of her father Roger Barre.

"Now when our husbands hear us talking about school, they walk out of the room, too," Jessica said.

"It consumes us," Connie admitted. "It really does."

Connie practically raised her daughters inside classrooms.

"My mom always drug us with her to vacation Bible school and her classroom," Kelly said. "We were always around kids."

Connie said her daughters didn't know anything else.

"Education was really a priority in the house," she said. "The teaching and the learning in their life was really woven into their path of education."

Connie, who grew up in Massachusetts, married Roger when he was in the military, and traveled around before settling in the metro-east in 1979. She taught at several metro-east schools before teaching first grade at Jefferson School in Belleville the last 19 years.

This will be Jessica's first year teaching again after taking 10 years off to raise her four children, all of whom will be in school this year.

Prior to staying home with her kids, Jessica, 37, was a third-grade teacher at William Holliday for four years.

Jessica said she enjoys touching the lives of children and seeing them grow and learn.

As young girls, Jessica and Kelly often played school in the garage. Connie would sometimes bring home extra school supplies.

"I would even save up my money to buy school supplies from the teacher store," Kelly said. "I remember buying a little grade card and I would give her (Jessica) problems to do and ask her to get some wrong so I could use the grade card to calculate her percentage."

At one time, Connie, Kelly and Jessica were attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale together. Jessica was earning her bachelor's degree while Connie and Kelly were finishing their master's degrees.

Students often mistake Kelly and Jessica for one another. "We kind of look like each other," Jessica said.

Connie is "extremely proud" of her daughters' accomplishments so far. "Our journey has been pretty incredible," Connie said. "We try to help each other."

When asked if Kelly had aspirations of becoming a superintendent, she said, "Not today."

Does Connie, who didn't want to disclose her age, plan on retiring anytime soon? "Not today," she said.

Connie hopes at least one of her six grandchildren becomes a teacher, too.

The best thing about being a teacher is "developing relationships with students and families and being able to be there when we set goals for their future," Connie said. The most difficult aspect of teaching, she said, is "saying good-bye as they (students) move onto bigger adventures in learning."

Watkins family

Belleville East health education teacher Pat Watkins, 55, of Belleville smiles broadly as he talks about his daughter Christine Gooding's accomplishments.

Christine, 28, of O'Fallon is a special education extended program coordinator for Belleville School District 201 -- the same district where her dad works.

"She's taken a program and has improved it and built on it," Pat said. "I get many, many compliments about Christine."

Christine helps special education students, aged 18 to 22, find job placements at local businesses.

Pat has worked at District 201 for 28 years including 17 years at Belleville West and 11 years at Belleville East. He has taught health education, driver's education and special education.

Pat's mother-in-law, Peggy Reynolds, a former business education teacher at Belleville West, inspired him to go into education.

"Watching her, I knew what it took to be an effective teacher," he said. "I noticed the time she took to prepare each day, and the passion she had for her students."

Pat's wife Patty Watkins also taught part time while raising their children. Christine has two brothers, Chad and Eric. Chad taught three years for the Teach For America program in Washington, D.C., before pursuing a law degree at Washington University in hopes of becoming a lawyer, and Eric works at a marketing firm in St. Louis.

"Within our family, education is very prominent," Pat said.

Pat has three brothers and two also work in education. John Watkins of New Baden is a retired geography teacher from East St. Louis District 189 and James Watkins teaches at Emge Junior High School in Belleville.

"We have a corner in the market," Pat joked.

Growing up, Christine always knew she would be a teacher. "Teaching is in my blood," she said. "It's what I know."

She recalled visiting her dad's classroom at Belleville West and drawing on the chalkboard.

"You see their interaction with their students and how they really made an impact on their students," Christine said. "It makes you want to go into that profession."

Christine also credited great teachers at Wolf Branch and Belleville East who served as role models.

There are very few people you remember besides your family, she said, but you always remember who your teachers were. "That just goes to show what an impact they have on you," she said.

Both Christine and Pat previously worked as coaches. Christine helped coach tennis at East for four years, and Pat coached freshman football for 11 years at West.

After close to three decades in education, Pat still enjoys getting up and going to work everyday.

"A teacher's responsibility," Pat said, "is to make hard things simple."

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