Spotlights
FACE of the Week: Sondra Spencer, volunteer at Lyons Mills and Church Lane elementary schools
As part of BCPS’ commitment to ongoing Family And Community Engagement, the "FACE of the Week" is a new, regular feature of the BCPS website that introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS special – our volunteers and PTA members.
12/22/2015

Spotlight

Sondra Spencer could be doing anything on this sun-splashed weekday afternoon. She could be traveling; she wants to visit Iceland someday and to take a cross-country train ride. Or she could be working on new designs for the line of handmade jewelry she sells at the Fells Point Market.  

But Spencer, newly retired from her career as an administrative law judge for the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings, is not doing any of those things. Right now, she sits on a puffy chair outside a kindergarten classroom at Lyons Mill Elementary School, patiently taking Mark* through the alphabet.

N is for nest, Mark says. P is for piano, and for the pencil he holds in his hand. "P is a very good letter," Mark says.

"Now, what word starts with ‘Y’?" Spencer asks Mark, who seems particularly energetic this afternoon.

"’Y’ did you do that?" Mark says, emphasizing the letter and smiling.

"Well, that word starts with ‘W,’" Spencer says. "What else starts with ‘Y’?"

They go back and forth, Mark testing and teasing and Spencer prodding and smiling, pulling each answer out of Mark’s clearly bright and busy mind. Soon, he asks to go to the bathroom. When he comes back from his classroom, seconds later, he volunteers his deception.

"Psych!" he says. "I lied to you. I didn’t really have to go." He pauses, waits for a response, then sees Spencer’s brow tighten. "Are you mad at me?"

"Well," Spencer starts, quietly, "that’s not very nice. Lying is not a good thing to do, is it? We’re not going to do it again, are we?"

Mark shakes his head – no, we won’t – and then he silently wraps his arms around Spencer’s neck. Mark hugs a lot, Spencer says later. All is forgiven. The lesson continues.

Jumping right in

When Spencer retired in April, the Milford Mill High School (now Academy) graduate knew precisely what she wanted to do. First, she booked an overnight train trip to Chicago; she had always wanted to spend a night on a train.

Then she turned her attention to something more substantial. Her family had taught her how learning is key to a happy life, and as a girl, she had entertained thoughts of becoming a teacher. Now, she figured, she had a second chance to work with children.

In October, she enrolled in Baltimore County’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and began volunteering at her neighborhood school, Church Lane Elementary, and at Lyons Mill based on the recommendation of her sister Diana, who works for BCPS.

She jumped in with both feet, too. Not only does she work at Lyons Mill for three hours twice a week and at Church Lane for three hours once weekly, Spencer also has volunteered recently to staff the BCPS Parentmobile and is a longtime volunteer for Milford Mill’s mock interview program.

At first, the elementary school experience surprised her. "I thought I’d be reading stories and playing with crayons," she says. "That’s what we did when I was in kindergarten. You’d have half a day of playing, then milk and cookies, naptime, and you went home. I had no idea how much had changed."

Now, she says, schools ask a lot of even the youngest learners – everything from using laptop computers to tackling math and spelling lessons. She works with children on a variety of skills at Lyons Mill, while at Church Lane she assists teachers with copying and shelving books in the library – a task she finds ironic. "I’ve come full circle," she says, laughing. "My first part-time job was shelving books in our local library."

Lyons Mill kindergarten teacher Christine Carringer appreciates the presence Spencer brings to her classroom and students. "She is a wonderful asset to our school," Carringer says, noting that Spencer works with children on fine motor skills, letter sounds and identification, and number skills. "She always comes in with a smile and is enthusiastic to help out. She’s built a positive relationship with the students, and they are excited to work with her."

Adds Principal Maralee Clark, "(Spencer) has quickly become a member of our Lyons Mill family. She can be found sitting on a soft seat in our Kindergarten commons area working with students throughout the day as well as lending a hand to a teacher wherever she is needed."

Of course Spencer would recommend the experience: "If you love little people and respect the idea that they have brains and thoughts and ideas all their own, and if you’re patient and willing to not always be in control, it’s totally rewarding. I come home some days feeling exhausted but totally exhilarated. . . . If I could, I’d be in the classroom every day."

When volunteering becomes something more

Clearly, Spencer’s interaction with students both inspires and humors her, so much so that she keeps a small notebook to jot down interesting or funny encounters with the youngsters. In the hallways, children respond to her waves and smile with high-fives and greetings of their own. Some, like Mark, stop to give her a quick hug.

"You can see how much fun this is," she says. "These are my kids."

She’s mindful of her family’s influence; as a teacher of non-English speaking children for a time, her mother spoke warmly of her students and "loved her kids," Spencer says. Education was an integral part of Spencer family life. Both her parents were in college throughout her childhood, and the family often sat around the table after dinner with everyone doing his or her homework. Ultimately Spencer earned a degree in sociology from Howard University the same year her dad earned his bachelor’s degree. She earned her law degree from the University of Maryland the same year her father earned his master’s.

Beyond the love of learning, however, there is something more for Spencer. First, there is the fact that it’s not the kind of work you have to do. The fact that it’s volunteering makes it, for Spencer, somehow more engaging, more special.

"Knowing I don’t have to do this makes it so much more enjoyable," she says. "It’s what I get out of bed for now."

Second, there seems a lot of the future attached to the retired Spencer’s impulse to volunteer. Her short tenure at Lyons Mill and Church Lane already has convinced her to begin "seriously thinking" of going back to school to take classes in early childhood learning, less for the career opportunities than to understand how young students absorb and process information.

Leaving a positive impression, for Spencer, has become important.

"This is my way of giving back," she says. "And maybe I’m thinking about it in other ways, too. I have no children, and when I leave here, there will be no more of me. So if I can do one thing to impact their lives, or if I’ve done something that leaves an impression they will remember, that makes me feel good. I feel like I’m giving of myself this way."

So, for now, Iceland can wait. Spencer’s new line of jewelry – working title: "Off the Chain" – can come later.

These are days to enjoy her second life, and for wondering about lives changed and futures perhaps made a bit better. It’s an experience that seems to genuinely amaze Spencer, and to please her.

 "I didn’t know how passionate I was about this," she says, "until I did it."      

To learn more about volunteering in BCPS, visit http://www.bcps.org/community/volunteer_info/

*Names of students have been changed

For more photos, visit the BCPS Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/bcps/albums/72157662581696046.

Story and photos by Charles Herndon, specialist, BCPS Family and Community Engagement.
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