After 23 years of the customary workbook exercises, mnemonic tricks and “cookie of the week” traditions that characterize the middle school Latin curriculum, Latin teacher Joyce Wagner plans “to have no plans” following her retirement.
When her younger sister passed away last year, Wagner was impelled towards evaluation of her own life.
“As long as I’m still healthy, I want to enjoy what there is to enjoy,” Wagner said.
Although her general plans are wide open, Wagner does intend to do some substitute teaching at local schools so that she can continue to spend time with kids as she has for the past 30 years she’s spent teaching.
“I think it would be too much of a shock to my system not to be around young people,” Wagner said.
It was Wagner’s own experiences as a young person with her teachers that spurred her to teach.
“I really wanted to be the kind of teacher I often didn’t have in high school,” Wagner said. “Teachers were not all that kind.”
Wagner discovered quickly that she had a passion for teaching middle school students. Although she taught Latin III to 10th graders in her first year at Westlake School for Girls, by her second year at Harvard-Westlake, she had transitioned to teaching Latin IA to seventh graders and Latin I and Latin II to ninth graders, which she remained teaching ever since.
Although teaching basic Latin might seem easier than teaching more advanced levels, Latin teacher Paul Chenier said teachers like him could easily be replaced, and that the far bigger challenge lies in teaching younger students.
“You need a broad skill set to do it,” Chenier said. “[Wagner] just has this.”
Chenier, who used to teach ninth grade history, recalled that once a 12th grader visited him to tell him how much he had enjoyed Chenier’s history class but could not actually remember what he had learned.
This would never have occurred in a class taught by Wagner, Chenier said.
Instead, students come to his upper school classes still remembering the anecdotes and mnemonic devices that Wagner taught them in the seventh grade.
“She’s instilling stuff that’s going to last forever,” Chenier said. “That’s not normal.”
Chenier called her the “mother” of the Latin program.
“She leaves very big shoes to fill,” Chenier said. “It’s incredibly difficult to find a teacher who’s effective but also has a great gentle touch with the kids coming to school.”