Lifetime of Learning: Mrs. Russell Retires After 43 Years of Teaching

Mrs. Ann Russell at Omaha North High School, where she taught from 1988 to 1999. In addition to teaching English and Humanities, she also co-coached the Academic Decathlon team. “We won two state titles and Rookie Team of the year at nationals—lots of fun because we were always underdogs,” Mrs. Russell reminisced.

Mrs. Ann Russell at Omaha North High School, where she taught from 1988 to 1999. In addition to teaching English and Humanities, she also co-coached the Academic Decathlon team. “We won two state titles and Rookie Team of the year at nationals—lots of fun because we were always underdogs,” Mrs. Russell reminisced.

Eirnin Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief

“I had interviewed at Sewickley Academy and I got the call from [Head of Senior School] Joyce Farris in the spring of 2000 that I was going to be hired,” Mrs. Ann Russell said. “The fall of 2000 was the beginning of my time at Sewickley Academy.”

As Mrs. Russell, a beloved English teacher at SA, prepares to retire after 19 years at our school (43 years of teaching in total!), she has a lot to reflect on. And while most SA community members are familiar with Mrs. Russell’s kindness and skill for teaching, the journey that brought her to the Academy in the first place is less well-known, but just as inspiring.

Mrs. Russell spent her early years in Ainsworth, a small town in rural Nebraska, attending an equally small high school that didn’t even have an art program (like many similar schools at the time, Mrs. Russell said). Though she intended to major in art at Nebraska Wesleyan, she felt intimidated by her already-experienced classmates from city schools and decided to follow her passions into a different area— the English Department.

“I found my footing there very quickly,” Mrs. Russell recalled. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to teach, but I knew English was my love.”

After college, Mrs. Russell tried working in marketing, but, she said, “It dawned on me that if I did my job well, people got junk mail.”

Mrs. Russell then applied for a job in the Omaha public school system and was overjoyed when they hired her. This career switch landed Mrs. Russell in the middle of a historic movement.

“The work I had been doing for the first couple of years was with students who were under a court-ordered mandate to be bused to suburban schools,” Mrs. Russell said. “They were from segregated schools in Omaha and they were being bused out to suburban middle schools, and it was a world I was completely unfamiliar with.”

Caption: Mrs. Russell in 1978 when she taught at Omaha Morton Jr. High, where she stayed until 1980. She was a Title VI reading specialist. As she explained: “Title VI refers to civil rights legislation passed in 1964 to help mitigate a variety of inequalities in job opportunities and education. The legislation was still providing funds when I started teaching in 1978.”

“All of a sudden the work took on such great significance for me. I went to the Urban League after school to work with my students. The Black kids were being bused out to the White neighborhoods, and it began to dawn on me how much of an upheaval this was.”

Encouraged by supportive school administrators, Mrs. Russell became more than just a classroom teacher to her students.

“One of my students asked me to come and hear him play the drums at church, and I went,” she smiled.

And as Mrs. Russell changed her students’ lives, her time teaching them shaped her.

“I had grown up in a pretty homogeneous small town in Nebraska,” she remembered. “There were native people, but they were always on the margin, and racism was just kind of a given in the treatment of those people. What I began to realize when I got to Omaha, and I got into those schools, and I saw the way things were playing out, that in and of itself was a tremendous education for me.”

“All those experiences were so rewarding and compelling,” Mrs. Russell continued, “and I began to really understand how much I wanted to be in the classroom, how important the work was, that every student deserves to have someone in the classroom who cares about them, and wants to be there. And sadly there were situations where that wasn’t the case. I really felt strongly— not that I was doing everything the way that it should have been done, but that I was sure going to try.”

As a result of this experience, Mrs. Russell said, “I’ve thought so often about how much I learned about what kids are struggling with, what kind of hardships they’ve endured, and I continue to be just so amazed by the things that I see people handling and managing.”

Eventually, due to her husband’s job transfer, Mrs. Russell moved to Pittsburgh, assuming that she would teach at one of the area’s public schools. Independent schools were uncommon in the Midwest, so she didn’t anticipate ever teaching at one. But after a brief stint at the Jewish Day School in downtown Pittsburgh, Mrs. Russell was hired at Sewickley Academy. This period of change was meaningful, but not always easy.

“It was quite a transition to go from the public schools to an independent school. I had a lot of insecurity about being a Midwesterner where I knew that what was really valued was CVs from the East Coast. I was very insecure about that and I probably still am to some extent.”

“The world I came from, the world I grew up in was so radically different,” Mrs. Russell continued. “There were times when I’d be walking across the [SA] campus and I’d just wonder how I ended up there, how I was so fortunate. ”

Compared to public schools, Mrs. Russell noticed, “there was an intensity in the classroom that was a little different, and I was just so grateful to be there and just loved the school from the start. I remember thinking early on, ‘I wish every student who wanted this kind of education could have this kind of education: small classrooms, dedicated teachers.’”

“I’ve always said a bad day at the Academy is still better than a good day at a lot of places, and I stand by that, I really do.”

Since Mrs. Russell’s arrival 19 years ago, a typical day at SA has changed dramatically, especially as the school has put more of a focus on understanding the ways in which students learn.

“That probably sounds like it would be the top priority,” Mrs. Russell said of understanding how learning occurs, “but I think for many college prep schools at that time the idea was, ‘We’re giving you this information and it’s your job to figure out how to make sense of it.’ I think the Academy has made great strides in helping us as professionals become better at delivering material […] being sure that we’re working to diversify our curriculum in ways that reflect society as it is […] and understanding learning challenges that individual students can face and helping to address those.”

Throughout her time at SA, Mrs. Russell has taught numerous classes at different grade levels, and has found something special about each one.

“The ninth graders have their own charm and I always enjoyed working with them,” she said, “but I also got a lot of pleasure from working with the juniors and seniors and seeing them evolve.”

Mrs. Russell’s favorite courses to teach have been 11th and 12th grade electives: Humor and Satire, Documenting the World, and Myth and Literature.

She said she couldn’t possibly pick her favorite book to teach— she has loved everything from “Candide” to “Oedipus Rex” (“I thought it had its own creepy charms”), “Citizen” to (“the kids are gonna scream when they hear this”) “The Metamorphosis.”

“I’ve pretty much loved everything, in one way or another, that I was able to teach,” she summarized.

Beyond books and courses, she reflected, “I have gotten such pleasure from seeing students grow and develop. I get such a kick out of students coming back to visit, I know I’m going to miss that […] Just seeing them become these full-fledged adults that are enjoying their own lives and prospering intellectually, those are certainly real pleasures of this work.”

Mrs. Russell at Omaha South High School, where she taught English, in 1980.

Mrs. Russell has no shortage of plans to continue enjoying life to the fullest as she moves into retirement. She hopes to golf more frequently, do lots of reading, join a competitive bridge card league, travel to Eastern Europe and Asia, and volunteer in her community with organizations such as the Pine Democrats.

She has also considered volunteering with the Pittsburgh-based refugee aid organization Hello, Neighbor or teaching a writing class at a women’s correctional facility. And of course, she’s excited to spend more time with her grandchildren, ages two, six, and seven, who live in Ohio.

Reflecting on the end of her time at SA, Mrs. Russell said, “I just feel tremendously fortunate for a number of reasons, and I would say certainly my time at the Academy has reinforced that. This has been a wonderful way to spend a life, teaching has been. I wish more talented kids would consider it. Teaching, I know it’s not glamorous by any means, but if it’s right for you, it’s a wonderful, richly rewarding, challenging, stimulating way to spend your life.”

“I love reading, I love writing, and to be able to have spent a lifetime learning and being immersed in those things was a tremendous pleasure.”