“There is this verb: to be Teson-ized. If you have been Teson-ized, it basically means that you have been made tough, you have been made intellectually strong, rigorous,” CHS English teacher Adam Hayward said. “It means that you can go to any university in the world and if someone asks you to write a paper, do research, and think critically, you will be successful.”
In 2009, Hayward, a colleague and friend of Sue Teson’s, began to instruct a section of the Honors American Literature course Teson crafted at CHS. The moment he met Teson, he knew the two were kindred spirits.
“When you work with Sue, what happens is you find your own energy increasing. It was extraordinarily intense and collaborative. I found myself learning a lot about teaching American Literature especially in terms of painting and music,” Hayward said. “We tried to work together to ensure that our students, who launched their Honors American Literature careers with different teachers, would be in a similar place. She let me creatively steal everything that she had. We constantly worked together.”
A blueprint for Teson’s Honors American Literature course is transmittable to teachers of any stripe. As resources, “HAL” teachers could borrow from Teson hundreds of lesson plans, a highly intentional and chronological list of American books and a cultivated thesis any student can adapt to the infamous author’s project.
But the relationships Teson has built with her students during her 28-year English teaching career belong to Teson and her students, exclusively.
“I’ve worked hard to make my lessons purposeful and meaningful. I don’t take my connections for granted. If you come off as a person who doesn’t work hard to authentically develop connections, kids see through that so fast,” Teson said. “I’ve never tried to be the cool teacher on the first day; I’ve always just tried to be myself. I let kids warm up to me and come up to me – I’ve never tried to impose myself on people. Kids recognize genuineness and that’s what I’ve always tried to be: genuinely myself.”
Although the Honors American Literature course might be synonymous with Teson’s name at CHS, Teson’s dimensionality shapes her character.
A decorated college student, Susan Elizabeth Owen was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, served as editor of The DePauw, received the English Student Department Award and graduated Summa Cum Laude from DePauw University. With a degree in English, Owen returned home to St. Louis from Greencastle, IN. and began a career in sports journalism.
This career was short-lived.
Owen’s former high school principal beckoned her back to Parkway South High School. When the opportunity to teach English at her alma mater presented itself, Owen was intrigued.
But another offer emerged: Kirkwood High School.
A vacancy in the middle of the 1988-1989 school year allowed Owen to eagerly quit her job in journalism and hop directly into a masters degree program in which she could also receive her teaching certification. Then, in January her first batch of students awaited.
During her tenure at Kirkwood High School, cornerstones of Owen’s life formed. Sue Owen became Sue Teson when she exchanged vows with Kirkwood High history teacher, Bob.
The Tesons were entrenched in Kirkwood, MO. They built lives there: Bob and Sue raised three kids in their Kirkwood home.
The Tesons shared the same commute to work everyday for 12 years.
But in 2001 their career paths diverged.
Kirkwood could no longer accommodate a fireball in the classroom and a mother of three in the interim.
Teson said to Kirkwood: “If you value what I do, I need some help. I teach two AP Lit classes, two 10th grade honors and a regular 10th grade. I have three little kids at home. I teach in a certain way that requires lots of feedback, so I’m looking in other places.”
Newly retired Clayton English teacher Jim Lockhart – also a product of the Kirkwood School District – had encouraged Teson for years to teach at Clayton.
“I always said there was only one place I would leave Kirkwood for and that was Clayton,” Teson said.
Compared to Kirkwood, Clayton allowed Teson to teach three classes instead of five. Within the conferenced English program at Clayton, Teson could develop intimate relationships with 70 students rather than focusing her attention on 130 students in the Kirkwood classroom. Fewer students per school year at Clayton did not stunt Teson’s work ethic.
“I remember feeling that this was someone who was doing maybe twice as much work as I had seen anyone else do,” Hayward said.
The concentration Teson directed toward her work each day both challenged and motivated students.
“It was not scary, but intimidating. You feel like you have to match her intensity. She inspires you to want to say something thoughtful and meaningful,” CHS alum (‘16) Lem Lan said. “With Teson, she actually helps people think about what they’re going to say before they said it.”
Teson’s intensity can be defined by her eye contact, movement and spirit.
“She looks at you and it’s like she sees into you. She has this beautiful, powerful presence and it’s almost like she is the conductor of a symphony in front of the classroom,” Honors American Literature alum Sarah Murphy (‘05) said. “She always wore bangles and they would always clank together, especially when she was articulating something – driving the point home.”
Sometimes in class Teson cannot tame her passion.
“Part of the reason I love my subject is I love words and I love beautiful words. I love thoughts that are well expressed whether they are on the page or coming from a student. I say ‘Yes…Yes… Yes!’ when someone expresses a thought with great words.”
Nurturing belief in young adult students, Teson offered her soul to her subject.
“I think a lot of time people do not give teenagers enough credit for their ability to think critically and understand things. She does. She understands the developmental stage that you’re at when you’re 16 and 17 so well,” Murphy said.
Teson’s lessons transcend standardized mundanity.
“What I like about the Humanities is it’s a forum for debate, it’s a forum for discussion, it’s a forum for thinking and words,” Teson said. “The type of learning that is so essential to a classroom environment is unquantifiable. It’s not something you can’t gather data on. There’s no survey or a test that I can give to measure that.”
Teson had not always envisioned retiring after 28 years in her career.
“One of my long-standing career goals was to retire after 30 years of teaching. Clearly, I’ve elected to retire two years short of that goal. Teaching literature and providing writing instruction at the level I’ve demanded from myself has been rewarding, but exhausting work,” Teson said. “After 25 years in the classroom, I reached a point in my career where I was eager to share my pedagogical insights and acquired experience with others. I then decided to “put myself out there,” as it were, in terms of seeking a leadership role, but for whatever reason, those opportunities never materialized. I’m not going to lie – it hurt. I gave the job my best, but my vision of what constitutes great teaching has apparently fallen out of step with the times. When I came to that recognition, I knew it was time for me to walk away.”
In addition to teaching in the high school setting during her career, Teson also co-taught a Methods in Teaching course at Webster University with former CHS English teacher Nick Otten from 2005-2008. Otten taught Honors American Literature at CHS concurrently with Teson in the early 2000s. Teson was honored with the 2015 Bill Mendelsohn Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Teson’s poster of Johnny Cash, her portrait of Walt Whitman, dozens of books, family photos and memorabilia representative of the American story and her own will be relocated from English office 3G when August 2017 arrives.
For Hayward, the absence of Teson in coming school years will leave a profound void in the English department.
“The personal feelings, it’s just a loss. I would say that coming [in] and teaching is difficult. You look for certain people that help you get through and she has been one of those people for me,” Hayward said. “It is kind of like a tectonic shift in the department. That’s a foundational person and she’s leaving.”
How might this force of nature occupy her time during retirement?
Perhaps an onlooker will find Teson in one of her devotional positions: curled inside Walt Whitman’s bathtub, straddling Zora Neale Hurston’s tomb, or staring contemplatively at Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits in Arkansas.
In a matter of weeks Teson will firmly shut the door to her classroom, but the pages of text she has shared with decades of students will remain open to her as long as she lives.
“I can promise I will never teach again. It’s done. It’s over. That doesn’t make me sad either. I gave it my best and now I’m leaving it alone. I have no regrets about the classroom or my relationship with students. I pride myself on what I have with each individual kid. That’s how I look at my impact or my career as a teacher: it’s my job to try to reach every kid in the best way I can,” Teson said. “I’m still young. I’m going to have a happy life. A lot of these authors, they’re a part of me, they’re in my soul, and so you don’t cut out your soul just because you’re leaving the venue that demanded your daily attention to those people.”