It’s not always possible to go back and thank the people who’ve influenced the direction of our lives. That mentor, that role model, that athlete – that teacher – may never know how much of an impression they made. 

For Alyssa Pronti, the new social studies teacher at St. Mary’s Parish Swormville, that teacher was James Duncan, the social studies teacher at Starpoint High School who inspired her to enter the field.

Pronti was thrilled to be able to thank Duncan in person this week.

“He enjoyed going to class every day and he made it so energetic and enjoyable just to learn about world history,” Pronti said. “He formed my passion and love for social studies, and I thought, ‘I want to do this one day.’"

Duncan, a 20-year member of the Starpoint High staff, remembers Pronti as being enthusiastic, very bright and trouble-free. He's assured that she'll do fine in her new job.

Over coffee at Scripts Cafe bright and early Thursday, the two chatted about what makes education work, the connections they’ve made and the growing role that teachers take on for their students.

“I think a lot of it has to do with creating a community within your classroom that makes all of your children feel very safe,” Pronti said. “It has to do a lot with your personality. … If you can foster a child’s engagement just based on your personality, and if you make them feel safe and comfortable, they’re going to enjoy coming to you.”

“There’s a little personal element,” Duncan said. “One of the big things for me is knowing names, right away, or remembering something you know about them and see them do throughout the year, whether it’s a school play, or a club, sports, and acknowledging it in class. … ‘I saw you on the track field, I saw you do this, that was great!’ The kids just light up.”

Duncan said he keeps encouraging students by congratulating them for giving correct answers, giving them high-fives, acknowledging their effort.

Pronti said these were all aspects of Duncan's teaching style that inspired her.

The new teacher and her mentor agreed, instructors today have to be truly present for their students.

“They need to be able to talk with you, feel like they can be open to you, because if they feel you’re closed off to them, they’re going to be closed off to you,” Pronti said. “You’re not going to have that great rapport with them.”

”It goes back to creating a connection," Duncan said. "If they feel they can come to you, outside the classroom, with things that are affecting their lives on a personal level, then you can literally teach anything you want. For kids, it can be anything, and I think all they want is for someone to sit there and listen. Half the time, you don’t even have to give advice. It’s just being there for them, while they get something off their chest.”

The teachers also talked about COVID-19. Duncan said he is disappointed by the cancellation of football, which he coaches on the middle-school level. Every teacher wants to get back in the classroom, he said, but not at the expense of the safety of their students.

However, he noted this is another learning opportunity for students about perseverance.

“Exactly,” Pronti said in agreement. “You may be out of your normal habitat, like us being outside the classroom, and having teachers screened, but you have to share your durability, and show that we can handle any situation.”

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