Q&A with Cathie Webber of Countryside School
Cathie Webber is the only leader the independent Countryside School has ever known since it opened with 12 students in a storefront next to a County Market in 1994.
Today, the K-8 school is 148 students strong and based in a building at 4301 W. Kirby Avenue in Champaign.
After two decades at the helm, Countryside's founding head will retire this summer. The school will honor her with a "Celebration of Gratitude" from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
The 66-year-old mother of three sat down with The News-Gazette to talk about following in her parents' footsteps, playing Chava in "Fiddler on the Roof" and more.
Q: We understand you welcome the students to school every day.
A: Every morning I go out to greet them, rain or shine. When we moved into this building, I was so excited that I just went out and started opening doors. I realized that I loved it. I love being able to say hello to the parents each day. Because I don't get to be in the classroom each day, it is my opportunity to have a little connection with each child. And I have been doing it for 20 years.
Q: What's the intrinsic value of independent schools like Countryside?
A: There always needs to be choices. But I also think that independent schools nudge all schools. The public schools are hamstrung in terms of a lot of legalities. With an independent school, you can react more quickly.
For example, about 10 years ago I went to a conference talking about the role that China was going to play in the world. But so few people here know Chinese. We were teaching Spanish and French, both European languages. I thought we needed to have a balance. Within three months we started a Mandarin program.
In an independent school, you can move so much more quickly to make changes. Independent schools model what can be done, and often public schools look at what the independent schools are doing.
Q: How has Countryside changed over those 20 years?
A: I think that technology has made education change. The research on learning has made a difference. Research on learning teaches us how children remember things. We study what impacts the brain. Ten minutes is really the maximum chunk of time they can handle. So, here at Countryside, every 10 minutes we have to change activities and do something.
There is so much research on the importance of the physical cementing of learning. We have them march around, saying something or talking to one another in small groups. We constantly do things to change the focus of what is being learned. Children now days are much more stressed when they used to be.
Q: How can you help children avoid stress?
A: We teach them how to breath, how to relax. For some of them, it isn't easy. They need to have these skills because they become so tense. In the earliest grades, we teach them to sit there and close their eyes and listen to their breathing. Our mission is to provide joy in learning and excellence in education. You learn so much more when it a joyful experience.
Q: Take us back to the beginning. You graduated from the University of Illinois in 1969. What was your first full-time job?
A: Working as a writer for The News-Gazette right out of college. I did it for two-and-a-half months. I had majored in journalism at the University of Illinois. At the time, there was an Urbana office, and I covered the schools, the park district and the county fair.
I didn't know a whole lot about county fairs to begin with. But I remember that Dolly Parton was there with Porter Wagoner. I had never seen a tractor pull, and I had to cover those. And I remember covering the county fair queen contest. I was there from early morning to late at night. It was just a whirlwind.
Q: How'd you go from writing to teaching?
A: While I was at the Urbana office, I saw an ad looking for teachers in Danville. I went over there, and they didn't need a journalism teacher, but the school district called me two or three weeks later to ask me if I would consider teaching third grade at Edison Elementary School. I thought, "How hard could that be?"
Q: Ooh, third-graders. Any trepidation?
A: I just thought, I was a third grader once. I didn't really appreciate everything that a teacher needs to know and what is involved starting a school year. I was very nave. I had exceptionally high expectations for my students. Consequently, we did a lot. That was the beginning of my love for gifted education.
Q: Were your parents surprised that you made the switch to teaching?
A: Yes. My father (Arthur Johnson) was the superintendent of schools in Rockford, and my mother (Joyce Johnson) was a school psychologist and specialist. You could say schools was in the blood, kind of. Children of career people often say they will never go into their family's business, and I always said that, too. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and came down here to go to school.
Q: Did your parents give you any advice about becoming a teacher?
A: My mother was the one who gave me more advice about teaching. She told me, "A student can't learn until their emotional and social needs are satisfied. Always look at what you can do to support the student."
Those words have been a guide to me throughout my career in education. There are children who are stressed out. There are children who have had a fight with their friends. It is really important to take the time to address the things that bother children and to try to work through it so they can let go and move on."
After three years in Danville, I went back to Rockford to teach at Conklin Elementary School. And by that time I was dating someone here, so I moved back to Champaign in 1975.
Q: Was it difficult to find a job when you returned?
A: By 1975, there were probably 100 applicants for every teaching position. I had a lot of experiences teaching gifted and talented students by then. But there was nothing for me.
By chance, a teacher at Robeson School announced she was moving away after a month of school. Someone that I had met told the principal I was looking for a job. And I got that job.
That was the first year we started doing musicals in the schools. I directed "Tom Sawyer" with the fourth- and fifth-graders. I did plays at Jefferson and Garden Hills. Over the years, I was probably most known for directing and producing plays with so many kids before I came here to Countryside School.
I also worked for the Reading Group and started a program called Homework Helpers. We would train tutors to work with individuals. Then I took time out to do a lot of volunteer work in the community.
Q: After two decades in teaching, how did the Countryside opportunity come about?
A: In 1992, some families got together and talked about starting an independent school. There were two approaches in the beginning. There were a group of families who were looking for gifted and talented children. And there was a group of families who were looking for an extension of the approach that University Primary School had used. The parents hired me as the head of the school.
When I first saw the school, classes were held in what is now the pet store next to County Market on Kirby Avenue. Where the hardware store is now was our playground. Behind it, we put in a building for fourth and fifth grades and middle school. Eventually moved into a third building for a gym while we looked for a permanent location.
In 1996, we identified this land where the school stands today, and we moved in here in 1997. We have had two expansions since that time.
Q: What's been the best part of the job?
A: I got to shape a school. It is too bad that nobody coming after me (will) have that opportunity. I have always been looking at all the best practices — all the things that ever excited me.
Q: Have your parents been proud of all you've achieved here?
A: Yes, and they even moved down here and live in the Twin Cities now. I think they both recognized what we have done here has been truly special.
Q: Do you stay in touch with the former students after they leave Countryside?
A: Yes. Thank goodness for Facebook. I have at least 300 former students who are my Facebook friends. The most thrilling thing for me is seeing them graduate and go on to something else. And many of them stay in touch and come back for alumni events. When they come back, they say that the people of Countryside School are a family. Knowing those families and those kids is the reward of education. The relationships are what I treasure most about what happens here.
Q: How do you plan to spend retirement?
A: I am an only child, and so I plan to be doing a lot more to be taking care of my parents. My son and daughter-in-law live in New York and my one daughter lives in Boston, and I want to be able to visit them when I want to. I want to do a lot of volunteer work and take some classes at the university. And I want to travel, of course.
Q: As a director of musicals, do you have a favorite?
A: I adore "Les Miserables." And once I was in theater myself and was in "Fiddler on the Roof" in a production in Danville. I played Chava, the third daughter. As a director, I like to direct "Tom Sawyer." I always take the kids to Hannibal, Mo., and we go through the caves. Every time I direct the show, we get to do the Hannibal trip, and I love it.
Q: What advice would you give a young person who aspires to a career in education?
A: The most important thing for anybody in education is to truly love teaching. A lot of what we learn in formal education classes is useful, but you need on-the-job training — your experiences, your interactions. Until you do it, you don't know what it is going to be like.