Marla Putnam came to teaching later in life, and that, she says, is what makes her a much better teacher than she would have been straight out of college. Recently, an anti-bullying initiative that she helped her Bolingbrook High School students develop has become a huge success.
“I tell my students I’m a second career teacher, instead of an old teacher” says Putnam, who has taught at Bolingbrook High School for 10 years. She loves her job, but the first time she tried student teaching, years earlier, she hated it and vowed never to teach again.
“I asked my students, ‘What’s the difference?’” she says. “It was the mindset. The students didn’t change. I changed.”
This greater wisdom might have been what compelled Putnam to be open to her students’ very focused interest in a local bullying case. When the incident occurred in the fall of 2014, the victim’s aunt mentioned it on social media and it caught the attention of the Chicago television news program. The students in Putnam’s Adult Living class expressed great concern and told their teacher that something had to be done.
“The next day they went down and talked to the principal,” Putnam says. “The principal gave them four topic ideas.”
The class brainstormed. Within a class period they came up with a mission statement, ideas to raise awareness about bullying, and a group name: the One VoiceStrengthening Society. “I said to myself, ‘Just shut your mouth and let the kids run with it’” Putnam says. “And they ran with it.”
Immediately the principal invited the two lead students to organize a presentation at an all-school staff meeting in the auditorium. Four students addressed the crowd and delivering after their impassioned, moving accounts, some of which included tales of hospitalization and even suicide, many of the faculty and staff were left in tears. The kids had made it clear to Bolingbrook High School leaders that bullying was a very real, very serious issue that was not going away.
Today, because of the program that Putnam’s students developed, anti-bullying awareness is top-ofmind at Bolingbrook High School. The PowerPoint was presented to all 33 freshman homeroom classes, and in January an official anti-bullying club was formed at the school. There is even a student ambassador program, which trains students to be pro-active bystanders, instead of ignoring instances of bullying.
One could say that in an indirect way this initiative grew out of the concepts that Putnam learned in a class that was part of her master’s in education studies at USF. The class, taught by Dr. John Gambro, was called Service Learning, and it was all about giving back. Service learning is different than community service in that it is tied directly to the class curriculum, and it is student-led.
Putnam had been doing this already on a smaller scale with her students, even before she took the USF class. As part of some of the classes she taught at Bolingbrook, her students made blankets for hospice and a local nursing care facility. They even made pajama pants and presented a pajama pants fashion show, complete with music from when the nursing care facilities’ residents were in high school. [See article on Valley View CUSD 365U website here.]
After completing Dr. Gambro’s class, Putnam’s goal became to include a service learning project each semester. The anti-bullying campaign could easily be seen as a form of community service, or at least doing something to help others in need.
“I really believe in everybody doing community service work and having to give back,” Putnam says. “We have so many blessings, we need to give back to others.”
The path that Putnam took to get where she is today had some twists and turns. After graduating from college in 1980 she worked in retail management while raising her sons. It wasn’t until 1997 that she went back for her teaching certificate, and not until 2014 that she began her master’s studies at USF. The experience could have been intimidating and confusing but the people at USF made it a joy, she says. The newest chapter in her life is one of the best.
“Ten years later and it’s a terrific job,” says, who also teaches parenting and fashion design. “It’s not just a job, it’s a career. I really love what I do.”
Putnam loved that she could complete her coursework at USF both online and in actual classrooms. She had great flexibility in the classes she could take, too.
“All the USF classes allowed me to tailor my projects and research to the actual classes that I teach,” she says. “My master’s work has had a huge, positive impact on my curriculum and teaching. The instructors gave very helpful comments and critique on all projects and assignments.”
Most of all, like the caring, selfstarting students she has mentored in Bolingbrook, the people at USF were quick to help her — not only with her application, but all the way through her studies.
“They’re just the nicest people in the world,” she says of the people she encountered at USF. “I mean every single person through the process was just nice, and helpful. Everybody.”
Clearly Putnam took that experience to heart, and now her own students are following suit.