In recent years, Harriet Irwin has been reflecting a lot on her long and varied career as a teacher. Several decades ago, when she was a teacher at Madison’s Crestwood School, there was an abundance of kids in 5th and 6th grade one year. When asked to take some of the surplus, she eagerly accepted. “They were such a fun group!” she says.
Harriet taught many subjects, but her favorite by far was science, and she especially loved birds. A group of her students caught on to Harriet’s passion and showed their own interest. “So we formed a birding group,” Harriet says. “We would go out in the morning before school started and see what we could hear and see.” She continues, “Sometimes we’d even go up to Sauk City to see the eagles…these kids were fascinated!
“I’m not a lister,” Harriet says of her naturalist passion. “It took me a while to learn how fascinating birds are and what they do. I’m perfectly happy to sit on a rock somewhere and watch!”
The group lost track of each other over the years, but when Harriet moved back to Madison, she caught up with two of her very favorite students: Leyla and Steve. Leyla lives in Verona, while Steve lives in Minneapolis and travels to Madison to see his father. “You hate to play favorites, and you try not to,” Harriet says, “But these two were definitely favorites.” The group recently reunited with a birdwatching excursion and breakfast, catching up with years of exciting experiences. Both of the students are now professional musicians, and Leyla is also a teacher. Leyla plays in local chamber music groups as well. Steve is “really unique,” Harriet says, referring to his style of music. “He’s a guitarist and composer and has spent time in Nepal and Tibet.”
SAIL even helped Harriet connect to another student! Charter SAIL member Lois Curtiss’ son, Ned, was also one of Harriet’s pupils at Crestwood in that big fifth and sixth grade class. When Harriet and Lois reconnected through SAIL, Lois told her son, and he wrote Harriet a lovely note saying how much he had enjoyed her class. Many years later, he still remembered her, and even addressed her as “Miss Irwin!” Harriet definitely got a kick out of that. You just never know who you’re going to meet at SAIL!
Harriet’s mother was an educator. “I had a bent to be a teacher,” Harriet says. “Throughout my career, I taught 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th grades. I also taught the elderly, and I taught other teachers. I was even a dog trainer!”
She didn’t only take after her mother though. Her scientist father passed down his genes of curiosity and love of all that was scientific. Throughout her years of teaching, Harriet discovered she was a naturalist. “My father was a scientist, but his science was in the laboratory.” Harriet discovered at a young age that she loved to be outside, just like her mother.
In addition to teaching many grades, older adults, and other teachers, Harriet spent years teaching at a federal prison through a program offered by UW-Baraboo. The men she taught worked all day and then made the choice to take Harriet’s botany, ecology, and biology classes, in addition to other courses to earn a two-year degree. There were often 20-25 people in a class. “They would not do anything to jeopardize that program. It was good for their brains and they knew it. [Earning a degree] bodes well for hopefully how they behave when they get out.”
Her favorite part of working with inmates was finding plants and fruits and bringing them to class in her giant LL Bean satchel. “I think they thought I was hysterical for being out in the woods and bringing in stuff…these were big-city kids who had never seen this part of the world.” She would even bring fruits and vegetables to share with the class.
Harriet is a perfect example of someone who dedicated their life to helping others. Reconnecting with Leyla and Steve brought back beautiful memories, and also reflects the adage that teachers learn from their students. “It was teaching that really made me realize my passion for science,” Harriet says. “It didn’t feel like work. It was something I could do and do well.”
“A teacher plants seeds. Sometimes they sprout and grow and become big and beautiful, and sometimes they don’t…but that’s what teaching is all about. Trying to instill some ideas and some passions and some values in the students you have. I think-I hope-I did that.”
Given that her students were willing and excited to reconnect with her, we’re betting she did!
Thank you, Harriet, for sharing your story and for all of the knowledge and excitement you have planted in your students and friends.
May 4-May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Week. If you know a current or former teacher, try to send a note or give them a call to let them know how much they mean to you! At SAIL we extend our immense gratitude to teachers of all types. Your passion is an inspiration!
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