Fit for her chosen profession


Some teachers might be hesitant to teach middle school in a building shared with a high school.

Not Amy Ryan. She seized the opportunity as a chance to first mentor her kids at Sparrows Point Middle School and then watch them as they grow, and to help them adjust to life at Sparrows Point High School.

It seemed simple enough, since the two schools are in the same building. However, there's nothing simple about the difference Ryan makes in the lives of her pupils.

Ryan came to the school more through an act of fate than by choice.

She was a student teacher in Baltimore County while earning her bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland. She liked the area and decided she'd apply for a position there. The prospects were uncertain.

"When people get a job in physical education, they keep it," Ryan said. "The turnover rate is very low."

She interviewed for positions at two schools, expecting openings during the next school year.

"I called the county, but no one knew the status of the positions. I was to the point where I was ready to accept a position from whichever of the two schools called me first," Ryan said. "It was literally 7 p.m. the night before teachers reported to school that the call came in from Sparrows Point."

Ryan accepted her first job in 1998, teaching physical education. She found the setup of the schools made her job more difficult.

"The first year was tough because the high school kids didn't know who I was," Ryan said. "I'd tell them to get to class or to stop goofing off in the hallways and they would look at me like, 'Who are you?'"

Ryan learned from her first-year experience in subsequent years.

"In addition to teaching physical education at the middle school, I was coaching high school soccer, basketball and softball," Ryan said. "I also started the eighth-grade basketball program. So many of the kids got to know me through sports. I knew their younger siblings or older siblings and met their parents. This was the foot in the door I needed."

Linda Day, the high school physical education teacher who shares office space with Ryan, said Ryan learned quickly that physical education teachers are also counselors and used this to bond with her students.

"I think the unique setup we have here is important in the bonding we do with the students," Day said. "The kids get to know Amy in middle school and they feel comfortable talking to her. So when they get to high school, they can't develop this closeness in the classroom -- so they come back to her. "

Day said Ryan's dedication to her pupils has earned her respect from everyone around her, including the school administration.

"May is National Physical Education Month," Day said. "Amy wanted to do a kickoff activity. She asked for a few minutes during the school day and, because of his faith in her, the principal gave her an entire class period."

The project required all 565 pupils at Sparrows Point Middle School to gather on the athletic field and divide up by grades.

At the blow of a whistle, the sixth-graders played catch with the ball of their choice, while seventh-graders jumped rope and eighth-graders walked or jogged around the track.

After 12 minutes, Ryan blew the whistle again. Balls dropped, jump ropes hit the ground and kids switched to their next activity.

"It looked like well-organized chaos, there were kids everywhere. But it was actually very well done," said Principal John Foley. "She does a lot more than just physical education around here. She teaches the kids positive values, health, nutrition, exercise habits and she really cares about the students."

Foley said Ryan's mentoring has helped distinguish her at the school.

"She works with the kids before and after school," Foley said. "She runs the breakfast program and I always see her in the cafeteria chatting with the kids. She has a special way of talking with these youngsters. She treats them with respect and acts as a great role model."

Recently, Ryan was honored as the Middle School Teacher of the Year for the southwest area of the county by the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce. She was one of more than 250 teachers being considered for the honor.

She said the only recognition she needs she gets from her pupils.

Several children spoke of what keeps them coming back to Ryan.

One girl said Ryan has helped her deal with life off the field.

"I had a problem with a group of girls in school who wanted to fight me," said junior Nikki Antalffy. "She told me what to say to them to get them to stop, and it worked. I was so grateful to her. The girls leave me alone now. She always takes the time to ask me how I am, and she's the only one who does that."

Nikki's sister, Gabrielle, an eighth-grade, said she got to know Ryan outside of school.

"At my sister's games I have conversations with Mrs. Ryan," Gabrielle said. "My sister has fun with her. It makes me excited to get to work with her in sports next year."

Todd Sauerwald, an eighth-grader, said meeting Ryan early and getting to know her made middle school less intimidating.

"When I came to middle school it made me feel better to see someone I knew in the halls," Todd said. "My mom worked in the high school and I got to know [Ryan] when I was in second grade. She's so great."

Ryan summed up her mentoring with an experience she had recently with a freshman.

"This boy came walking into my class one day," Ryan said. "I asked him what he needed. He asked me if he could join my class. I looked at him and said, 'What are you talking about? You never liked my class when you were in it.' He smiled at me, and said, 'Come on, you know I love you. Your class is the best!'"

For her, that's the reward.

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