WILMINGTON — Shelley Collier has an unknown person from a long-ago television show to thank for her current position at Salesianum School, where she teaches American Sign Language to a waiting-room only list of boys.
Collier, 52, remembers living in North Carolina in the early 1980s, deep in the Bible Belt. She recalled watching the late preacher Jerry Falwell on television one Sunday while her parents were getting ready for church. In the corner of the screen was a sign language interpreter. Collier was fascinated.
“I turned the volume down and just watched the interpreter and thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to learn how to do that,’” she said recently at Salesianum.
She began to follow the same routine every Sunday, and although “life happened” and she never became an interpreter, her love of ASL remained with her. She helped Salesianum launch its program in 2013-14 with one class and 11 students, adding to the program each year until it was full. Now, she teaches six classes of American Sign Language, and a part-time teacher is necessary to cover two others.
“Now, we have to turn kids away from the ASL program,” she said. “The hope is to be able to hire another full time ASL teacher at some point down the line because there are so many kids that want to take it.”
Collier has made an impact on her students, with and without words, and three of them nominated her this past school year for The Dialog’s Teacher Feature. They were recently graduated Nathan Gambol and rising seniors Koby Onugu and Michael Gioia.
“Ms. Collier is all-around a very good person,” Gambol wrote. “whether it is from the way she approaches lessons to teach her students, the way she makes a playlist of everyone’s favorite songs to play in class, to the time she let me make bacon in her class!”
Onugu said Collier makes her students feel at home and better about themselves. “The clubs she runs, the classes she teaches, they make us feel more comfortable and helpful during school.”
Gioia calls Collier’s classes engaging and enjoyable. “My class in particular has some very good relationships between students, which allows us to learn everything we need to learn while having a good time doing it.”
Collier said those sentiments have gone into her “Why I Teach” box she keeps in her classroom.
“We all have those days when you think, ‘Why do I do this?’”
She wants her classroom to be a good environment, and judging from the popularity of American Sign Language, she has succeeded. Although not everyone goes on to use sign language in the future, she has heard from former students who tell her just how much ASL has meant in their lives. Five of her students that she knows of have gone on to take college classes in the subject. One former student had a much older sister who was deaf, and they struggled to communicate until he took her class.
“He said, ‘I can talk to my sister, which is really exciting.’ So, it’s just been a really fun experience,” Collier said.
Collier’s family settled in Philadelphia when she was 16. After graduating from Central High School, she went on to Temple University for undergraduate studies and Concordia University for her master’s. She is currently working toward her doctorate in educational sustainability from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.
She was married and had a son when she began studies toward becoming certified in ASL, a required step before becoming an interpreter. She took a break and had two daughters, and by the time she was able to pursue certification, the closest programs were in Baltimore and Philadelphia, which was not feasible for a mother of three young children.
Collier was a stay-at-home mom for nine years, worked as an executive assistant, and helped run a business with her now-former husband. But most of her career has been in education, including a long stint at Red Lion Christian Academy before she arrived at Salesianum.
“I was a little skeptical coming into an all-boys school because I didn’t know how I felt about single-gender education, and I found that I actually really like it. Guys are different when they are all together,” she said.
She said there is something for every type of boy at Salesianum. And she enjoys how the diversity of the school has grown since she began.
“What you see around here now is very different from what you saw when I started,” she said. “The diversity has changed in nine years, and I think that’s very valuable.”
Collier, of course, wants her students to remember the content of her classes. American Sign Language is important; according to the March of Dimes, up to 3 of every 1,000 babies born in the United States has some kind of congenital hearing loss.
But just as important to her is that they grow as a person while in her classroom. The boys may not remember some of the complexities of the grammar of ASL, “but if they remember how to get along with people and how to treat people well, and how to respect somebody … that’s what I do. For somebody to stop and think, to write something nice about somebody else, that’s what I teach.”
She loves this quote from the late poet and activist Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In addition to her work in the classroom, Collier is the moderator of the Young Democrats. She lives in Prospect Park, Pa., and likes to spend time with her two granddaughters. The family recently acquired an RV — she likes to camp — and she also enjoys knitting and reading. She spends part of her summer in Wisconsin working on her doctorate.
Collier also said she used to sing with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir in Philadelphia and would like to get back to doing that.