WILMINGTON — St. Peter Cathedral School teacher Sally Grandell looked a bit surprised when eighth-grader Eric Irons approached her with a bouquet of flowers on Feb. 2. It was Catholic Schools Week, and Grandell figured principal Jane Manley was visiting each classroom to have the students present their teachers with flowers.
But that was not the case. The eighth-grade had nominated Grandell for The Dialog’s Teacher Feature, but her selection had been kept under wraps. Along with the flowers, the students offered some reasons why they picked Grandell.
“You helped me get into my high school, and I cannot thank you enough,” one said. “Also, you opened me up out of my shell.”
Another said, “She has helped all of us improve and get better at ELA (English language arts) and other classes. Thank you for that.”
Finally, one boy said, “You are the best teacher that we’ve ever had.”
Grandell has been making a difference in students’ lives at the cathedral school since 1985, primarily but not exclusively teaching seventh- and eighth-graders. She said it has basically been her career, although she wasn’t thinking in terms of decades when she arrived. But she quickly fell in love with St. Peter’s.
“When I was hired here, the mission of the school really captured my heart,” she said. The longtime principal, Sister Barbara Ann Curran of the Daughters of Charity, told her they were “missionaries in the city.” There are still a few members of the congregation in the parish and school community.
“The spirit of the Daughters is different” Grandell said. “It’s just a unique feeling here.”
Grandell said she does a lot of one-on-one work with her students and teaches them writing by example. She said she challenges them to make their ideas come alive. She likes to write and might put something on the board and go from there.
“We’ll kind of write together. That kind of gets them out of that fear of ‘I can’t do it,’” she said. Her class this year worked on a project on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and last year they read two books.
“If you give them something that captures their attention, they will read it, but sometimes you have to really pick and choose what you choose to teach,” she said.
Grandell has worked with this year’s eighth-graders since they were in fifth. She is thrilled with the strides they have taken and notes that three boys will attend Salesianum School, another is headed to St. Elizabeth High School, and one more earned a scholarship to Archmere Academy. She said she believes that being at St. Peter’s made a difference in their lives.
The tributes from the students confirmed for her that they do listen to her, even on those days when she believes that isn’t true.
“To hear them sort of articulate their reaction makes me feel like, is that really who I am? I hope it is,” Grandell said. “It’s just really very overwhelming to hear that from teenagers. You don’t hear that every day.”
Grandell grew up in Wilmington as a member of St. Ann Parish, which she still attends. She is a graduate of the parish school, Ursuline Academy and the University of Delaware. She said she knew she wanted to be a teacher since first grade, where she had a nun named Sister Marie de Chantal who had an influence on her.
At home, she had a sister who was her student, whether she wanted to be or not.
“I made her play school with me. She hated every minute of it. I loved it,” she said.
She loved reading then and still does, and it’s something she has tried to pass along to her students. Watching them grow brings her great joy, and she gives credit to all of the teachers they encounter along the way. Every teacher deserves flowers, Grandell said.
The classroom is where she feels “the most myself.” She said she’s happy to be at St. Peter’s as long as they’ll have her even though the profession has become more challenging.
“I think at the heart of it, it’s still kind of reaching the heart of each kid, bringing them to their best self.”