When Beth Coleman was a first-grader at St. Monica Roman Catholic School, she remembers feeling lucky. That’s because she got the cool teacher, Mrs. Avitalle.
“She was a fun teacher,” said Coleman. “I still have the present she gave me from first grade. It was an Easter egg that has my name on it that she hand-wrote with glitter.”
Gina Mulvihill wasn’t so lucky.
“I didn’t have her, but she was the teacher everybody wanted,” said Mulvihill. “I got one of the sisters, and I cried for a couple days because I wanted Mrs. Avitalle.”
Both Coleman and Mulvihill went on to become not only graduates of St. Monica’s, but teachers there. Lo and behold, Sally Avitalle was still teaching at the time. In fact, she’s still teaching now.
“It makes me happy to hear it,” Avitalle told SPR. “Why they all want me, I don’t know. Is it the experience maybe because I’ve been here so long? I don’t know. I like to think it’s because I’m a good teacher.”
The Review spoke to Avitalle on the day she and the St. Monica staff celebrated her 50th year of teaching at the school. Members of her family along with various teachers – and, of course, the children in her class – all took time out of their day to celebrate. Avitalle wasn’t quite expecting all the fanfare.
“I had heard that they were going to present flowers to me at the end of Mass, but that’s the extent of it,” said Avitalle. “I had no idea my family was called, I didn’t know Action News was coming, I didn’t know you were coming!”
Avitalle tried her hardest to downplay her achievement.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like a big fuss,” she said. “Every time they mention it, I say, ‘Look, it’s only 50 years, it’s no big deal.’ ”
She also tried her hardest to downplay the r-word.
“I don’t want to retire,” she said. “Everybody keeps saying you can’t work forever, and I know that. But I’m not ready yet.” She says she’s got at least two more years in her.
“She’s very humble,” said Mulvihill. “We try to model ourselves after her.”
Avitalle, who grew up in Southwest Philly as the second oldest of seven children, started teaching at St. Monica when she was 18. Previously, she worked as a cashier at Uncle Nick’s Supermarket, located at 56th and Chester in Kingsessing. One day, a few friends Avitalle graduated with walked in and mentioned the job opening to her. At this point, Avitalle was settled into her cashier job and wasn’t thinking much of leaving. But she loved children and always wanted to be either a schoolteacher (“or a hairdresser,” she said).
“It made me start thinking again,” she said. “So I applied to the Archdiocese.”
On the day of her interview, which was in February 1968, Avitalle was told that if she got the job, she wouldn’t be needed until September when the next school year started. After her interview, she headed off to Uncle Nick’s to work a shift from 3 to 11 p.m. At 4 p.m., her mother got a phone call at the house from somebody at St. Monica asking for her. When she called back the next day, Avitalle found out she not only got the job, but she was actually needed in two weeks – not in September. But she didn’t immediately take the job. They offered her $65 a week, which was a steep pay cut from the $100 a week the supermarket was paying her.
“So I keep thinking, should I? Shouldn’t I?” she said. “I sat in on a teacher and watched her teach. Then I went home and I thought, you know what, this might be a chance that I’ll never get. I can always get a job in a supermarket again, but maybe I won’t be offered another teaching job. So I took it, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Avitalle’s older sister, Sue Perkins, said that she and her sisters would always play school.
“Especially in the summer when we were not in school,” said Perkins. “We all did that growing up.”
Around her family, Avitalle has actually earned the nickname “Saint Monica.”
“I think in life you meet people who say, ‘Oh, they’re so devoted to their job,’ ” said Avitalle’s younger sister, Linda. “There’s nobody like my sister that’s been devoted to their job. When I tell you she doesn’t take a day off, she doesn’t take a day off. This is her life. This school is her life, I don’t think she has any plans of retiring. I really don’t. As long as her knees don’t give out, she’ll be teaching.”
Currently, Avitalle teaches kindergarten. But she started out teaching third grade for 10 years. After her first 10 years of teaching, she took a two-year break to have her first two children and came back teaching first grade, which is the grade she’s taught for most of her career. In fact, she’s taught every grade from kindergarten to third grade during her time at St. Monica.
During that time, a lot has changed. The class sizes have gone from 70-plus kids to about 20, technology has taken over the world and the science behind behavioral conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has come forward, which teachers have had to adjust to.
“You never heard of that when you first started teaching,” said Avitalle. “You have to be more understanding, and a lot of times you have to modify the curriculum or accommodate them in different ways whereas years ago you taught the class all the same way.”
No more my-way-or-the-highway.
“That’s how it was years ago with the discipline with the Catholic school, but not anymore,” she said. “You gotta be there for them, you really really do. And you have to be understanding and patient.”
While it’s clear that Avitalle loves spending time with children, she loves her coworkers, too.
“As long as I’ve been teaching at St. Monica’s, the teachers have had a nice rapport with one another, and I think that’s why I like coming to school every day,” she said. “We’re each others’ friends. We have each others’ back, and that’s important.”