Retiring St. James teacher savors warm farewell

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

Toni Wojtkowski said she was “on a cloud” when students and school officials came together to honor her during her final week before retiring at St. James School in Sewickley.

A seventh-grade teacher who taught social studies, Spanish and religion for 28 years, Wojtkowski said she cried when Ryan Phillis, a 2004 St. James graduate, read a letter he wrote to her.

He also presented her with a keepsake booklet of about 20 letters he gathered from parents and former pastors and students.

One letter was written entirely in Spanish after the student learned the language in Wojtkowski's class.

Phillis wrote that he has so many memories of his former teacher that he could write a book.

“Some of them being; talking about ‘American Idol,' your spray in the room that smelled so good, your impressions, gift of laughter and your warm way with all your students.”

Jenna Ponticello, who graduated from St. James in 2010, also wrote Wojtkowski a letter saying she loved having Wojtkowski as a teacher and felt she was one of her best teachers who prepared her so well for high school.

Her mother, Susan Ponticello, St. James parish office assistant, said Wojtkowski always has been willingly to give her time to ensure that each of her students is well versed in the lesson plan, and at the same time, provides a wonderful role model as a Catholic adult.

Wojtkowski has worked with school administration to develop Spanish Masses, prayer services, fiestas and many culture-related projects.

Ponticello said one of Wojtkowski's specialties has been to prepare the eighth-grade class for the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration, which included a performance reenacting that story.

“Each year, the eighth-grade class takes great pride in this production, and it clearly comes from the extra effort put forth by Mrs. Wojtkowski,” she said.

The Rev. Thomas Burke, St. James priest, said Wojtkowski has touched the lives of more than 2,000 students during her career and was named a 2009 Golden Apple awardee, which honors exceptional Diocesan teachers.

Her current students also participated in a send-off presentation for her later in the week.

At age 65, Wojtkowski of Conway said she didn't think she would ever retire, even after being diagnosed with cancer two years ago.

After having chemotherapy and recovering, she said she felt blessed she was able to come back to St. James and establish some normalcy again.

“But, then I had the opportunity, and I feel God is pushing me in another direction,” she said.

She plans to visit her grandchildren and hopes to do volunteer work to help those going through chemotherapy because she said it's such a difficult time.

“I feel lucky it worked for me. I was so fortunate.”

She also likes animals, so she said she would like to volunteer at a humane society.

And, she would like to travel more.

“Being a social studies teacher and geometry teacher, I always said I'd love to see all those places. I've seen some, but not enough,” she said.

She said she will miss seeing the students and teachers everyday and not knowing what will happen on a particular day.

“Sometimes, it's exciting, and sometimes, you just want to start all over again.”

Wojtkowski said she feels like her job has kept her young, and all the friendships she has made feel like family to her.

And, she has seen some changes over the years, especially with negativity and violence being over exemplified.

“The first thing on the news is murder and the last thing is something good. Kids have to have a belief that this is a good place to be, that we live in a democracy and that we are lucky,” said Wojtkowski, who has two children and three grandchildren.

She said it's sad that there has to be such a need for increased security in schools and that parents can't feel their children are safe playing outdoors on their own.

“I love to teach religion to bring hope to the students and share a belief that, hopefully, will last a lifetime.

“Sometimes you have to get away from the books and tell about something that happened to you, that applied to you and share a personal experience. I told them about how my husband died, and I had a child who died, but I talked about how with hope, you know you can go on.

“Don't let the past take over the present,” she said.

Wojtkowski, who also worked as a teacher at military bases in Texas and Alabama and at Ambridge School District, said she also believes the value of family has fallen away in some aspects and should be emphasized more, and although she thinks technology is wonderful, “video games shouldn't be a child's whole life.”

The best thing about teaching, she said, is seeing the lightbulb go off in her students' faces.

“You think, ‘Ok, I made it through.' And, It's great when someone is so excited about sharing a current event, when they never read a newspaper before,” she said.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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