by Dennis Dalman
Teacher Connie Leitheiser, who began her teaching career at St. Francis Xavier School in Sartell in 1967, would always tell her students, as she pointed to their heads and her own, “Program this computer well because it’s the best ever created and is responsible for all those (electronic) devices you have.”
Leitheiser, of Sauk Rapids, is not averse to computerized teaching devices, but she thinks they are used far too much – and too early in a child’s learning development.
After 48 years of teaching, recently retired, Leitheiser would be considered by some to be old-fashioned or trapped in the past. Some, however, would consider her just what the doctor ordered: a return to the Three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) as the solid foundation for advanced learning. Leitheiser has taught in all grade levels and subject areas, in both public and parochial schools, in Sartell, Sauk Rapids, St. Cloud, Foley, Cold Spring and Buckman.
“I’m not anti-technology,” she said. “But I want kids to be well-grounded before we put them in front of that technology.”
After nearly five decades of teaching, she is quick to list the deleterious changes she has seen:
- Expectations and standards aren’t as high (as in the past).
In Leitheiser’s opinion, there is a new disregard for language, spelling and history in today’s classrooms.
“When students lack basic skills, they could never understand why I would put red marks on their pages when they would use a lower-case i instead of a capital I. That was a carry-over from their texting.”
Adults, she said, are carrying that same disregard for good language into their lives, with many not knowing the difference between two, too or to.
“I often say to teachers, ‘If I pull the plug in your classroom, can you still teach? If the power is out and you don’t have a textbook and then a substitute teacher comes into the room, what is that sub supposed to do?’ ”
Leitheiser takes issue with the claim children prefer electronic learning tools over books.
“Children want real books, not e-books,” she said. “In a Sauk Rapids middle-school newsletter a few years ago, there was a poll about real books and e-books. Most students said they like real books better. One boy said, ‘We want real books. New books smell so good!’”
- We teach to tests rather than providing a well-rounded liberal-arts education.
Leitheiser said a reverence for topics like history, English and other topics is being eroded because of a high-tech emphasis. Another danger, she said, is many teachers now specialize so only certain aspects of subjects are being taught rather than the broader view.
- More and more is expected of teachers without removing anything, thus leaving them with less time to deal with direct-instruction issues. A constant barrage of required meetings, meetings, meetings also keeps teachers away from what they should be doing – preparing lessons and teaching.
“It used to be teachers would be required to spend an hour before the school day preparing lessons plans,” Leitheiser said. “Now teachers are asked to do so many other things, they don’t have time to concentrate on teaching.”
Through all her years of teaching, Leitheiser imposed a strict – but fair – system of discipline.
There was no calling her by her first name by students. She would not drink coffee or eat food in front of the students, even when students brought her treats. She would explain why: “The rules are the same for you as for me.”
Discipline, she said, is slipping through the grasp of many teachers.
“It’s getting to be difficult,” she said. “If a younger teacher goes with the flow and there are four or five students who are trouble, soon they’re the ones who are in control, not the teacher. I set high expectations academically and behavior-wise. I had the same expectations for everyone and no favorites.”
Many times students would tell her, “We know where we stand with you, Mrs. Leitheiser.”
One day a boy asked her, “Why do you call us ladies and gentlemen?”
“Because,” Mrs. Leitheiser replied, “that is how I expect all of you to behave.”
Born in Fargo and country-schooled in Moorhead, Leitheiser and her family moved to California because her stepfather was in the U.S. Navy. She attended elementary school in San Francisco. Later, the family returned to Minnesota to live in Detroit Lakes.
She earned degrees in elementary education and Spanish at Concordia College, Moorhead, then moved with her husband, Merlin, to St. Cloud in 1967, where he had landed a job with AT&T. She taught 42 fifth-graders at St. Francis Xavier Elementary School in Sartell until 1969. At that time, she gave birth to a daughter who had spina bifida, a birth defect in which a baby’s spinal cord does not develop properly. To help her daughter, Leitheiser dropped her full-time teaching, doing some substitute-teaching work instead. Later, she taught again full-time at SFX from 1979-82.
Her other teaching assignments have included pre-school and Head Start (1983-85), St. Michael’s in Buckman (1987-91), and she also served countless hours as a part-time or full-time substitute in the school districts of cities in the greater St. Cloud area and beyond.
In Sauk Rapids, Leitheiser taught for 20 years at the elementary and middle-school levels, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. During some of those years she did substitute teaching, especially in Spanish.
She has served on the Sauk Rapids/Rice Curriculum Committee and on the Principal’s Cabinet; as the religious coordinator at St. Patrick’s Parish in Sauk Rapids, as well as teaching classes there; and as a Girl Scouts assistant leader in Sauk Rapids.
“My range runs from 3-year-olds in Head Start to adults in the St. Cloud Reformatory.”
The reformatory is now known as the St. Cloud Correctional Facility (prison).
When Leitheiser tells people that, they do a quick double-take.
Yes, for a year in the mid-1980s, she served as a tutor, mainly in math, for reformatory prisoners. While taking a human-relations course at St. Cloud State University, she heard in class that tutors were needed at the reformatory. She decided to volunteer.
“No, I wasn’t afraid,” she always tells people. “When the doors clanged shut, I knew I was walking out of there.”
There was a time, however, that Leitheiser was a bit nervous, the time a Native American inmate told her “the only good white person is a dead one.”
There was a guard on duty during her tutoring sessions, but Leitheiser decided to sit with her back against the wall.
Leitheisers’ retiremenet years will not be idle ones. She plans to do some tutoring, substitute teaching, gardening, reading, baking, crocheting, traveling, playing with her new dulcimer she acquired in Tennessee and even trying to play the bagpipe. Why the bagpipe? Because Leitheiser has fallen in love with Scotland, the land of her ancestors, where she has visited many times and plans even more visits.
She also plans her annual summer trip to Detroit Lakes to enjoy the We Fest country-music festival, which she has gone to for the past 31 years.
Leitheiser also hopes to talk her husband into a trip to Alaska, one of her long-deferred dreams.
She and her husband have three children: Colleen (St. Cloud), Jean (Iowa), Mark (North Carolina).
Colleen is the one who was born with spina bifida. She works at CentraCare.
“We were told she wouldn’t live even for days,” Leitheiser said. “She had a lot of surgeries, but she’s here and she’s doing fine.”
The Leitheisers have three granddaughters: Severina (Jean’s daughter), Lillian, 5, and Hannah, 2 (both Mark’s daughters).
Leitheiser’s advice for successful education she sums up this way:
“Have great expectations both in character development and academics. Set the bar high and nine of 10 will reach for their best level of achievement. Set it low and they will not achieve much of what they could have achieved. Knowledge is power.”