School of Education Associate Professor, Dr. Donna Rafter, has announced her plan to retire at the end of the 2016-17 academic year, concluding 17 years of teaching at Holy Family University. SOE – NewsLink caught up with Dr. Rafter to ask a few questions about her journey in education, advice for future teachers, and retirement plans.
NL: Tell us about your academic preparation. What degrees and certifications have you earned and where did you earn them?
DR: My undergraduate degree is from Holy Family—it was a college back then. I started out as a French major. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with French. My uncle told me that I would make a good teacher, and so I changed my major to elementary education in my junior year. I then went on to get my master’s degree at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University) in computer technology. I worked on computers “BHD” (before hard drives)! I earned my doctoral degree in Early Childhood Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. It took me ten years! I considered myself a turtle in that race; I just had to cross the finish line. My teaching certifications are in early childhood and elementary education.
NL: What was your teaching experience before you began teaching at the university level?
DR: I taught for thirteen years in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from first grade through sixth grade. My first teaching position was at St. George, a small Catholic school in Port Richmond with just one classroom per grade. The class size was small, too. I think I had 17 fifth graders. I look back now and think how fortunate I was to learn about teaching in such an ideal setting.
NL: What inspired or motivated you to become a teacher?
DR: I didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. My Uncle Bob was a computer programmer who helped me with math when I had trouble. He wanted to be a teacher, and one day when we were working on a tough algebra problem, he said, “Donna, you would make a great teacher.” I tucked that idea away and then at the end of my sophomore year of college I changed my major to Elementary Education. Of course that was the start of my teaching “love story.”
NL: What inspired or motivated you to become a teacher of teachers?
DR: Well, I have to be honest here. Jimmie and I had four kids, and I knew we could never afford to send them to college. So after I finished my Master’s degree, I was looking through the want ads and I saw an advertisement for Holy Family College. The Education Division was looking for a part-time faculty member to teach computers in their newly formed graduate program. I always felt I was at the right place at the right time. So I interviewed with Dr. Ruth Sower and she offered me the position on the spot. So that got me thinking . . . “Maybe I can turn this part-time job into a full-time position, and the best benefit would be that our kids could get a free college education.”
NL: When did you start teaching at Holy Family University? What attracted you to Holy Family?
DR: So I started teaching part-time, and Holy Family “loved” me so much that they created a full-time administrative position for me. I worked as an instructional technologist to support the full-time faculty in integrating technology into coursework. Teaching part-time at night, I missed the daily interactions of the classroom. I still remember feeling so down that one day Jimmie sent me a dozen red roses. That card is still taped to my computer: “Cheer up. I love you.” That was when I knew that I had to go back to school to get my doctorate so I could teach full-time, and that became a reality in 2001.
NL: What do you like most about teaching at Holy Family?
DR: Wow . . . that is a really tough question because I love so many things about teaching here. The heart of what I love is the mission and core values, and so I think consciously about how I weave the mission into the rhythm of my every day. Father Mac [Fr. James MacNew, Campus Minister] reminds us to put flesh on the words, and so I think of the little ordinary things that I do as “mission moments.” So this semester I made pancakes for my two morning classes on Halloween, a “mission moment.” Oh, one summer I taught a telescoped storytelling class, and on our last day of the course we had breakfast together and I dubbed it the “Academy Awards.” I got all dressed up, mink and all, and made awards for each storyteller, a “mission moment.” Through my personal life, I have come to realize that life is a precious gift from God, and so I try to live in the moment, the “mission moment.” I firmly believe that through “mission moments” I can make a difference in the life of one person. These differences then have a ripple effect. I cherish the words of Lao Tzu, “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
NL: If you could give one piece of advice to education students today, what would it be?
DR: Find a way to set yourself apart from other teachers. What is it that you do that makes you different? Be that teacher.
NL: So what have you done to set yourself apart from other teachers?
DR: To stay current as a teacher educator, I work with a second grade teacher and young writers throughout the school year. Working in the field keeps me on top of my game because it opens my eyes to the reality of today’s classrooms, markedly different from my teaching 37 years ago. For example, on Halloween as bags of candy pile high on the windowsill, I listen and write as young writers brainstorm just the right words for “Going on Our Ghost Hunt.” Through these experiences, I work to bring life to the abstract idea of “engaging young learners.” These nitty-gritty classroom interactions then become part of my teaching in the college classroom. My students see that I not only talk the talk, I walk it with them.
NL: What do you like to do in your free time?
DR: Every student I have ever taught at Holy Family should be able to answer this question! My passion for teaching is equal only to my passion for cooking and baking, and I have managed to bring the two together. I have been known to have closing parties at my home in Cinnaminson at the end of the semester. My all-time favorite thing is baking bread. I love the process—taking disparate ingredients such as yeast, sugar, salt, eggs, and flour, and transforming them into a loaf of homemade bread. Nothing smells better than bread baking in the oven. My own kids would tell you we always had bread on snow days. I just loved snow days for that reason. At home my meals are planned on the calendar so anyone visiting can look at the calendar and decide if they want to stay for supper. We never eat the same meal in a month because I love variety and love trying new recipes.
NL: What are you looking forward to doing in your retirement?
DR: I look forward to being with my three grandchildren, Michael, Anna, and Ben. Right now when I walk in the door, Anna walks right past me to see Poppy. She goes to Pop’s house on Fridays. I didn’t grow up with grandparents and so I have a different view. Jimmie has such rich stories about his Pop. So I see how important grandparents are for family life. I want to spend time with them, taking them down to the river, reading to them, playing with them, listening to them—loving them. Now if you ask Jimmie that same question, he would say traveling and, yes, we will travel, but it is not my top priority.