Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

A teacher of teachers, De Onis inspires joy in 'one of the finest professions out there' October 13, 2010 by Amy Stix • Published 10/13/10

Most adults take for granted that when we open up a magazine, newspaper or book in our native tongue, we will be able to read every single letter and word--and understand each sentence and paragraph--written across the page. Like riding a bike, reading is just something we have long known how to do.

But for children tackling the alphabet for the first time, or cracking their very first book, letters and words combined together can appear to be nothing more than a jumbled--and daunting--mess.
That is why Ann de Onis, MSU professor of English language arts, never takes literacy for granted.

And, since 1990, this self-described "teacher of teachers" has instilled her passion for "unlock(ing) the magic of the English language" in MSU education majors who now teach language and reading to school children across Montana and well beyond.

"I think teaching is an art and a science," said de Onis, whose academic research focuses on instructional techniques to reach students struggling to make sense of consonants and vowels. "What we do is lasting, especially with language and literacy."

Once kids grasp the foundation of phonics, said de Onis, they are able to "decode" unknown, unfamiliar words, enabling them to take the next giant leap within the English language--reading.
If de Onis' research and instruction skills have helped more children demystify--and enjoy--the English language, in turn, they have taught her that, "All kids can learn. They learn at different rates and with different instructional techniques," she said.

She speaks from classroom experience. In fact, the former elementary and middle school teacher, who signed her first teaching contract at age 20, had never considered going into higher education. After eight years serving as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and principal in her home state of Wisconsin, it was another school principal who suggested to de Onis that she consider pursing a Ph.D.

"It (is) amazing how one person can plant a seed," she said. And although she adored teaching kids, de Onis is equally enthusiastic about instructing a roomful of young adults.

"We need good people who can train tomorrow's teachers," she said. "Teaching is one of the finest professions out there. When I work with young adults who aspire to be teachers, my goal is to communicate to them the power they have as teachers of children.

"Teaching kids to find and discover the magic of language, the magic of words, is reward beyond compare."

Her own preparatory path for training the next generation of teachers was blazed at the University of Wisconsin, where de Onis completed a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. After completing her Ph.D., she learned about a job opening at MSU and soon after resettled in Bozeman.

"I remember how welcoming people were," she recalled of her colleagues.

That same description is often heard about de Onis, from fellow faculty and students alike.

When Joanne Erickson, interim head of MSU's Department of Education, arrived at MSU in 1998, de Onis served as her faculty mentor. Having de Onis' constant encouragement and caring professional guidance, said Erickson, "was fortunate and contributed to my success."

"Ann's most admirable quality is that she truly cares about each of her students...I know that even after I graduate and embark on the journey of a teaching career, she will always be there to support me as a mentor and friend," said Kristi Knaub, an education major who spent the summer teaching English in Cambodia.

Last year, Knaub recognized de Onis' mentoring and teaching skills by nominating her for MSU's Excellence Award. This award honors MSU's top 40 seniors who, in turn, choose the faculty or staff person who has most influenced their academic excellence. Faculty members covet the award, as the students they teach bestow it.

To date, de Onis' tally stands at 15.

In addition to that tribute, de Onis was given the President's Teaching Award, which is, according to Erickson, "(the) most prestigious teaching award we have on this campus. And the most competitive."

De Onis' abundant awards don't surprise Robert Carson, an education professor who has collaborated with de Onis and calls his colleague a "gutsy and committed" professor.

"There is no slouching in her class," Carson said. "She has always had a reputation as being rigorous and demanding. But at the end of the day, (de Onis) is giving students what they need to be effective teachers."

De Onis' keenness for encouraging colleagues and students, combined with her high expectations, likely stems from her personal philosophy regarding the teacher-student relationship. She insists that for any student to succeed in the classroom, a teacher must first forge a bond of respect and trust with the learner.

Her former student, Gia LaForge, who now teaches first grade at Bozeman's Hyalite Elementary School, learned that lesson well.

"Dr. de Onis truly inspires and expects greatness not only from students, but from herself, and is the kind of person who makes others sit up and listen," LaForge said.

Knaub agreed. "(De Onis) always...infused the philosophy that as teachers, we are professionals with one of the most significant tasks and should take our studies as seriously as one pursuing a medical or law degree."

For the unassuming and seemingly tireless de Onis, the professional demands she places on her students and herself are rooted in the joy she possesses for teaching literacy.

"You have touched people's lives and they are touching kids' lives," de Onis said. "That is what is important."