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Lisa Ptak - Dedicated, Focused, and Born to Teach

 By the time she was a junior at Crosby High School in Waterbury, Lisa Ptak was certain she wanted to be a history teacher. Knowing of her aspirations, three members of the history department at the school devised an unprecedented experiment for Ptak during her senior year: She was to teach four class periods, each with a different group of freshmen. Joseph Macary, one of the teachers, says that the feeling among the three colleagues was: “We’ve got a great student here—let’s let her learn.”

After reviewing the material to be covered and receiving a bit of instruction for how to develop a lesson plan, Ptak prepared her notes and maps and taught, over the course of a couple of weeks, one honors-level history class, one remedial class, and two regular sections. A lot of lessons were learned, and not just by the freshmen. Admits Ptak, “It was definitely a lot harder than I thought it would be.” Not surprising to her teachers, however, was the fact that Ptak did a great job. Macary, who is now supervisor of social studies for the district, says, “She’s dedicated, she’s focused, and she has a lot of patience. She was born to teach.”

Ptak, a CCSU sophomore, is enrolled in the Honors Program and is preparing to enter the Teacher Education Program. A history major, she has a real passion for her discipline. The value of studying history, she notes, is that we can learn from past mistakes to create a better future. “It’s not about memorizing dates,” she says. “It’s understanding causes and effects—and that’s what’s interesting to me.” Associate Professor of History Glenn Sunshine, who taught Ptak in a historical methods course, says that she has the intelligence and the skills to be an excellent historian. He states, “She does two things very well: she learns what others are saying and she forms her own independent judgment.”

In one key assignment for Sunshine’s course, Ptak used transcriptions of court documents as primary sources for an investigation into the witch trials in Geneva during the Reformation. Geneva’s witch-hunting followed a historically different pattern from other places, notes Sunshine. The way that Ptak linked that fact to the theology of reformer John Calvin was, he says, not only “elegant and convincing,” but also original and perhaps even publishable.

In addition to distinguishing herself in academic work that furthers her teaching aspirations, Ptak has capitalized on opportunities for experiential learning. During the summer, Ptak has worked as a camp counselor for the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Waterbury, and during semester breaks she volunteers at the elementary school she attended as a child. She never knows which grade or class she’ll be sent to assist, and she has enjoyed gaining broad insight into the curricula of young students.

Since her first semester at CCSU, Ptak has also worked for the Alumni Association’s phonathons, turning the task of raising money for her university into an opportunity to learn from dozens of current and former teachers who have benefited from CCSU’s programs. Where and what do you teach, she asks. What kinds of methods work for that subject matter? Says Ptak, “I love getting advice.”

Ptak’s ultimate goal, in fact, is to not only seek more advice from her old mentors at Crosby High, but also to join them as a colleague. “I feel at home when I go back,” she says. “It’s a special kind of community at Crosby.”

She also points out that suburban schools and urban schools like those in Waterbury are “two different worlds. I know the types of kids and maybe I can get to them better than somebody who’s never had an experience in an urban setting.”

She says she’d like to model herself on the teachers at Crosby in part because of their support for and commitment to their students both in and out of the classroom. “A lot of the teachers at my school really invested in their students. Seeing that made me want to be a teacher more,” she says. “I know I’d want to make a difference.”

— Leslie Virostek

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