Cardiff Junior High teacher loves what she does
Phyllis Nawrot has found her niche.
Teaching history to seventh-graders at Cardiff Junior High since 2008, the educator has taken her students on field trips to museums and memorials to learn firsthand about the Battle of San Jacinto, the Battleship Texas, The Buffalo Soldiers’ Museum, Sam Houston and George H.W. Bush.
She’s arranged for in-school visits from a Marshall Legacy group mine dog and members of the Katy Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9182 who share their World War II stories with students.
That partnership with the VFW brought Nawrot her latest award: Citizenship Education Teacher of the Year. The annual award recognizes teachers who promote civic responsibility, flag etiquette and patriotism.
Her teaching has won other recognition. In 2014, she received the Walter Kase Teacher Excellence Award from the Anti-Defamation League for her work to build a school atmosphere that rejects prejudice and promotes diversity as a strength. In 2010, she was recognized as Cardiff’s teacher of the year.
How did a New Englander end up teaching Texas history?
It was a convoluted tale. I had moved 11 times during my married life. I had two daughters to raise and devoted my time to getting them acclimated to the new surroundings during each move — schools, sports clubs, doctors, etc. We lived in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Kansas, twice in Ohio, Connecticut to mention a few. I was offered my first job since becoming an adult when I moved to Katy and had the opportunity to substitute at Cinco Ranch Junior High in 2000. I was in my fifties. It was there that I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Christie Whitbeck, principal at the time, who offered me my first full time position - but in Texas History. At that point, I knew about the Alamo, Sam Houston and NASA. I immediately began reading about the history of Texas and visiting large areas of the state. During my second year of teaching I was awarded a Fund for Teachers Grant that allowed me to tour the El Camino Real from Louisiana to San Antonio for weeks. I took as many courses as I could find dealing with our most remarkable and unique history. I loved what I found out, I tell the stories that make our Texas heroes fantastic but human. The kids feed off my enthusiasm and love the stories. I continue to research and learn daily which adds to my repertoire of history and its story. There is so much to learn!
When did you come to Katy and why?
My husband was offered a position as a chief information officer in the retail industry which required a move from Minneapolis. It was 1999. We had only been there one year. One daughter was in college and the other was starting her career, one in Ohio and one in Kansas. I now was going to have a chance to do what I had always wanted to do. I. began teaching when many of my age were retiring. I was loving it and having a great time.
You were born a teacher?
I think I was born a teacher. I was the kid who wanted a desk, staplers, markers and erasers for presents. I loved to create tests for myself as a kid and compare it to the one I took for the class. I still teach my family about Texas when we are in the car, watching TV or whenever I have a tidbit of time, I must share because they “have to” know. Sometimes they say, “enough, mom,” but I continue because I know they don’t really mean it!!!
What is your educational background?
I earned a bachelor of science from Worcester State University in 1969. I later earned a masters in the art of teaching from Webster University in 2000. I was 49 when I applied to grad school; I needed to learn and wanted to stay current which led me to Webster University. One of the first courses I took dealt with the 60′s; the prof was 20 years younger. Since I lived during the 60’s, she would wink at me and ask me to check her story so she could fine-tune it. I had a blast. I loved being a stay-at-home mom, but now this was my passion.
Your family’s lineage includes a Congressional Medal of Honor winner of the Civil War, a standard bearer for Custer and a Revolutionary War patriot. How has that affected what you do and how you do it?
I am a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution who “are passionate about community service, preserving history, educating children, and honoring and supporting those who serve our country.” I grew up in New England and was told the story of those early ancestors who fought for our freedom. I was a member of the Rainbow Girls where I learned about the importance of community service. I try to pass on the importance of community service to my classes. We have collected cans for food banks, collected for Breast Cancer Month, put wreaths on the graves of veterans, the first school to do so for Wreaths Across America in Houston. In my role as co-founder of the largest history club in the United States, I was able to introduce Katy kids both native born and those who are new to our country to places such as the Holocaust Museum, San Jacinto Monument, Austin State Capitol, Bob Bullock Museum, The Alamo, on and on. They learned our history firsthand through re-enactments, primary sources, secondary sources, music and plays, and guest speakers. Each year we celebrate those who have served our country past and present by creating a Veterans’ Wall of patriots. The kids are always interested to see a copy of my Revolutionary War patriot’s request for pension.
Your husband’s parents were prisoners of war in Austria during the Era of Nazi Germany. How has that affected what you do and how you do it?
One of my greatest honors was to be the recipient of the Walter Kase Award for Teacher Excellence given by the Houston Anti-Defamation League. My in-laws where 15 and 19 years old kids from the Ukraine and Poland when taken from their homeland to be forced labor in Austria. My children are first-generation Americans on their dad’s side! On their maternal side their first ancestor arrived in 1640. I have been the sponsor for the No Place for Hate initiate for our school. I know that anti-bias and diversity education are an important part of the school culture. I use the stories told by my family to make it real! At times, the stories bring the kids to tears. My in-laws were functionally illiterate because their country offered very little chance to get an education if you were not privileged. Their three children all have degrees and my husband has two advanced degrees. My daughters also have advanced degrees. When I tell them there is a big world out there waiting for them, I can back it up with stories of another set of immigrants who held on to the American dream and their kids embraced it.
The enrollment of Katy ISD includes students from backgrounds all over the world: Canada, Japan and Mexico. What do you do to make history relevant to such a diverse audience?
I am married to an immigrant, my mother was an Italian immigrant and I know the positives and the negatives of that label. The kids know that I believe that education is the equalizer and in this country there is nothing that can hold them back as long as they set their goals and do what is needed to get there.
Why is history important for young people to learn? Why is it important for you to teach history?
The answer is to learn so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, the study of the past helps us shape our future, and history gives us an understanding of the world around us. In my class we do just that. It is my duty and privilege to teach about our exceptional country and develop an appreciation for our uniqueness in our students. We learn the songs of the branches of the military. I love to watch them wave the flags as they sing. This year we had an incredible program presented by the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) to the entire school. We invited veterans from the area to attend. We had mom, dads, grandparents and others attend.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am still loving it. Each year I say this is the last one, but last year I was blessed with two new teachers as teammates — they both are veterans of Afghanistan. They are awesome, the kids are great, they love learning, and so do we as a team. I think I may rethink leaving next year. Can retirement be this much fun? My husband reminds me that the word retire is not in the Bible.