Love of reading, faith legacy of Pekin teacher
Photo Caption: Pat Graf and her kindergarten students sit beneath a banner they made for a recent Mass.
By: By Jennifer Willems
PEKIN — Pat Graf isn’t just a teacher. She’s a kindergarten teacher and she says there is an important distinction.
“I think kindergarten is totally different from any other grade, mainly because they come in not being able to read,” said Graf, who has taught kindergarten at St. Joseph’s School in Pekin for 21 years. “At the beginning you cannot give them anything that you are not giving them oral instructions for. There is not a moment that they can work independently because they cannot read.
“If you could see them from the start of the year to the end of the year — talk about satisfaction,” she says with a smile.
By the time classes wrapped up on May 29 her 11 pupils were not only able to recognize letter names and sounds, but they were reading simple books, could write independent sentences and do some adding and subtracting. They could also tell you Bible stories, Graf said, and after completing a unit on baptism they know they are members of God’s family with gifts and talents to share.
Her love of children is evident in every pat on the back, every smile, every whispered word of encouragement. And it is Graf’s love for children — her grandchildren in Ohio and Georgia — that made this her final year of teaching.
“I just decided that my family has to come first,” she told The Catholic Post as she held a picture of the two babies that grace her desk. “That’s really why I made the decision. It was hard because this has been my life.”
Graf knew that teaching kindergarten would be her life from the time she was in the fifth grade.
Growing up in Akron, Ohio, her fifth grade classroom was next to the kindergarten. When the kindergarten teacher asked if any of the fifth-graders would be willing to help with the younger students, Graf volunteered.
“My father was an educator — he was a principal — and that certainly played a role,” she explained. “There are quite a few educators in my family, although most of them are retired now.”
Graf earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Akron in 1972 and taught kindergarten in the public schools there for three years before she started a family with Robert Graf, her husband of 35 years. She took 13 years off to spend time with their twin daughters, Laura Brown and Julie Schultz, and son, Nick, and returned to the classroom after Nick started school.
“It’s sort of funny because the year they hired me (at St. Joseph’s) they had another kindergarten teacher and they had a huge incoming class. They said, ‘We’re going to hire you, but we want you to know it’s going to be for one year,'” Pat Graf explained.
“But they were so happy with two kindergartens and they were able to reconfigure classrooms,” she told The Post. “It’s just worked out that there have been two kindergartens ever since. And it has been a gift from God, let me tell you.”
As a product of public schools, Graf came to her new post with the idea that she was going to make St. Joseph’s every bit as good as the public schools. “It wasn’t very long before I realized this school is better than the public schools because of the faith-centered background,” she said.
Teaching kindergarten with her for the first 10 years was Donna Correll and Graf credits her with being a mentor and spiritual guide who shared the resources she needed to work in a Catholic school.
“She knew so much about the faith and was such a wonderful example for me and opened a lot of doors for me,” she said of Correll, who is an active parishioner at St. Joseph’s and continues to volunteer in Graf’s classroom.
Raised a Catholic, Graf said she enjoys sharing her faith with her students and much of that is done by example.
“We’re able to say to them, ‘Do you think that’s what Jesus would really want you to do?’ Or when you’re encouraging them: ‘Jesus would be so happy to see you do that,'” she said.
There is also daily prayer and during religion the children participate in “circle prayer” — standing in a circle and offering their own prayer intentions. And while they learn formal prayers, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be, the children are encouraged to pray spontaneously as well.
“The way they learn to do that is by listening to my lead,” Graf explained. “I don’t know how comfortable I was at the beginning, but now I’m very comfortable doing it. I think that’s true of most things at the beginning.”
What has helped her is starting the day with Mass, she said. It has been her practice to go to the 7 a.m. liturgy at St. Joseph’s and then head to school for a quiet hour of preparation before the children arrived.
All of the students at St. Joseph’s gather for Mass on Friday and twice a year the kindergarteners are responsible for serving as lectors, gift bearers, and petition readers.
“At the end we stand on the altar steps and we sing a song or say a poem so everybody gets to participate. With a group this small, everyone usually has another part in the Mass, but it’s really exciting to see,” Graf said. “It’s one of the best parts of the week as far as I’m concerned — whether we’re responsible or whether one of the other classes is responsible.”
She added that her own faith has grown as she has designed lessons and prayed with her students.
One of the parents who has experienced Graf’s gifts is Shannon Rogers, the principal at St. Joseph’s School. Now in sixth and eighth grades, both of her children had Graf when they were in kindergarten.
“She made them love school,” Rogers said. “They were very excited to get up in the morning and go to school to see Mrs. Graf to see what she had planned for the day.”
The principal said Graf also made her children love reading.
“She had patience with them — and a very kind heart,” Rogers said.
To thank Graf for all the lives she has touched, St. Joseph’s parents, students and alumni were invited to share their thoughts of the longtime teacher for a memory book. Similar to the books that she has prepared and given to each of her students at the end of the year, it was to be presented to Graf on the last day of school.
Donations also have been made in her honor and will be used to buy books and resources for the school library, Rogers said.
While St. Joseph’s will continue to have two kindergartens, Graf will always hold a special place in the hearts of the St. Joseph’s community, Rogers said.
“She’s wonderful. She truly is a saint in the kindergarten world,” Rogers told The Post. “She will be missed.”