Written by Jane Gutsell
In December Chris Phelps invited me to her lovely home for a cup of tea, holiday cookies, and an introduction to the many fascinating ornaments and artifacts that she has collected over the course of many years from her extensive travels both here and abroad. Chris loves to travel. As the daughter of two university professors, she was able to spend summers visiting different places, camping, and generally broadening her horizons. Over the years she has been to all fifty states which enhanced her fifth grade social studies curriculum, including in recent years a second trip to Alaska to see the Northern Lights where she went with Reg, her special friend of 25 years. She has also been to eight countries of Europe, Costa Rica, and even Australia, but most of all she enjoys the American Southwest. Her collection is brimming with wonderful ceramics and artifacts from the first peoples of this stunning region. Our visit gave me special insights into a vibrant, enthusiastic, charming woman who, after teaching fifth grade in the public schools of Alexandria, Virginia, for five years, was hired to teach fifth grade at Greensboro Day School in the fall of 1981. She started with twenty kids in the small trailer behind the Administration Building, and she quickly became respected as one of the most creative and innovative teachers on our faculty. She remained a fifth grade teacher for all of her 28 years at GDS before retiring in June, 2010.
Chris loved teaching ten-year-olds, who are “at that perfect age just before adolescence kicks in.” Able to wrestle with big ideas, they are eager learners who still love and want to please their parents and teachers. Chris was famous for teaching organizational skills, and invented a system of positive reinforcement she called “Superstars”. Every week she posted a chart showing the students’ names and the assignments that she expected them to complete. Those students who completed everything got to spend the last half hour on Friday afternoon playing outside, and the others stayed in a study hall, working to complete the week’s work. “There’s not a fifth grader alive,” she laughs, “who would not do anything for extra playtime!”
Chris taught calligraphy in order to emphasize good, legible penmanship, and in the early days of classroom computers she introduced her students to “Touch Typing”, a necessary skill in our computerized world. It was lots of fun challenging her students to surpass her speed of 40 words per minute! Chris also always had deep appreciation for her students’ parents with whom she built good relationships.
Over the years Chris was awarded several Teacher Enrichment Endowment Grants, which helped her in her travels and numerous unique and exciting archeological and paleontological digs, all of which she used in her teaching. For example, she brought back fossils from creatures that roamed eastern Arizona 225 million years ago. But Graduation Day 1991 was, she says with great emotion, “the best day of my professional life.” She was sitting with the faculty listening to the description of that year’s recipient of the prestigious Hendrix Excellence in Teaching Award, having no idea who it was until her name was called at the very end. Nothing has made her more proud than to be one of this very elite group of Day School teachers. Teaching in a college prep school was a perfect fit for Chris. Her belief that high standards are the best preparation for the real world found a compatible educational home at GDS. She had the highest respect for her Lower School colleagues who were all dedicated professionals — “No slackers here!” she always maintained.
Soon after retiring Chris realized how much she missed her Day School colleagues, so she contacted the Alumni Director, Kathy Davis at that time, and with her help put together a group of retired teachers they named “Bengal Friends.” At Chris’s instigation, many retired Lower School teachers now meet for lunch once a month to support each other, share experiences, and keep those important friendships alive. Chris enjoys reading historical fiction — “the longer the better,” so of course she loves the novels of James Michener. She has recently taken up dabbling in the Phelps family tree and has found a source that takes her bloodline back 21 generations to the 1400’s in England. She and Reg continue to travel whenever and wherever possible. One recent memorable trip was a river cruise down the Rhine River in Germany. She is also thoroughly enjoying spending more time with family, including the new experience of helping care for her adorable two-year-old grandniece Clara.
Chris says that from third grade on she knew that she wanted to be a teacher. “I had,” she lovingly declares, “a wonderful, kind, patient teacher whom I wanted to emulate! I also have a healthy dose of teaching DNA since both my parents taught at Duke University!” When asked to reflect on her time at Greensboro Day, Chris summed it up this way: “I feel so richly blessed that I spent my entire professional life doing what I was meant to do, and GDS was the perfect place for me.” And we at GDS have been richly blessed by her dedication to her profession and by her love for all Bengals great and small.