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Lisa Keller embraces a life filled with teaching

October 26, 2011

Lisa Keller

Each year, five women are chosen by the Punxsutawney Career Women’s Club for Career Women’s Week. The criteria used for choosing these women are based not only on their professional efforts, but also on the contributions they have made to community and family.

The club was founded in 1930, originally known as Punxsutawney Business & Professional Women’s Club. Sept. 8, 1998, the club name was changed and incorporated as a non-profit organization under the name of Punxsutawney Career Women’s Club, with objectives to promote growth and respect of women in the workplace; improve self-esteem in all careers; educate women; and support community projects.

PUNXSUTAWNEY — When you look at it, Lisa Keller is, in one way or another, teaching all the time, whether it’s her third-graders at Longview Elementary, dancers with Van Dyke & Company and the Mahoning Valley Ballet, or villagers in Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala.

“Everybody says, ‘Put your family first,’ and I do, but I seem to have a large extended family,” said Keller, who has taught full-time in the Punxsutawney Area School District for 19 years. “So I have my school family, the staff and children; I have my dance family — all the dancers, especially the Mahoning Valley Ballet girls — and our family in Guatemala and church. So I think I’m a pretty lucky person.”

A Punxsy native, Keller, daughter of George and Mary Couch, said she knew at a young age that teaching was her destiny.

“When I was in elementary school, I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to teach in this district, because I was inspired by absolutely phenomenal teachers who loved what they did.”

It took some time, however, before Keller — who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education at IUP — settled on her path to the classroom.

“There was a period of time when I wanted to do everything but teach,” she said. “It seemed there were many glamorous professions, so I had to try a couple things in college.”

For a while, Keller majored in journalism, because she wanted to write. For a brief period, she majored in music education and even thought about archaeology.

“But I remember the day where I just stopped kidding myself and just decided that I was done changing majors,” she said. “I really knew all along it’s what I was meant to do. It was a relief to my parents, but they allowed me to do some exploration and change majors, and I never regretted one bit of that.”

For the last three years, Keller has served as the head teacher at Longview, and throughout her full-time teaching career, she has always taught third grade.

“Always third grade,” she said. “I think it’s where I’m meant to be. I’ve loved every experience I’ve had, and I’ve especially enjoyed my time at third grade.”

Keller said when she was hired full-time, she was hired to teach third grade, and said, “I could have passed for a transfer out, and said, ‘If I move somewhere else, it will be fine, and I will love what I do.

“But I really love this age of kids (nine to 10 years old),” she said. “You can still have a lot of fun with them, and they believe anything you tell them, this innocence. But halfway through the year, some maturity kicks in, and you can get into some more depth and details. They understand things on new plateaus, and it’s such a wonderful time to be in their lives.”

As head teacher, Keller said it’s like being in charge of the building when the principal is away.

“I guess I am the kind of person that, whenever someone tells me to do something, I can get the job done,” she said. “I could be person to take care of problems as they arise, take care of the building or see that some forms are turned in completed.”

She said her favorite time of the school day is “when they (students) first come in, I get to talk to each one personally before the day begins. I just love that little couple of minutes with every student. You say, ‘Good morning,’ and you have little personal connections.”

When she’s not at school, Keller works for Van Dyke & Company and Mahoning Valley Ballet, in which her daughters — Elizabeth, 16, and Laura, 12 — have been involved for 12 and nine years, respectively.

Prior to working at the studio, Keller was one of the moms waiting for her daughters to wrap up the day’s rehearsal. During those times, Keller said she spent a lot of time doing school work.

Following the death of office manager George Bolt, choreographer/director Joan Van Dyke asked Keller if she’d like to help out in the office.

“That’s a place I love to be, so I said, ‘Of course, I’d like to help,’ and I haven’t left,” she said. “Between Debbie (Tate) and I, we travel with the girls when she needs someone to take the Mahoning Valley Ballet dancers, and it seems like we’re always around.”

When school ends, Keller focuses on work around the house, but once July arrives, she starts leafing through her school catalogs and planning for the next school year.

But the summers aren’t exactly easy-going for Keller, her husband of 21 years, Rod, and their daughters. For the last five years, they have traveled on mission trips to Guatemala through the non-denominational humanitarian organization Now is the Time.

Keller said she had felt for some time that she wanted to do mission work, but that wasn’t possible, citing the ages of her daughters and other factors. But that was until few years ago, when her family — including her daughters, which is unusual — was invited by a friend on a missions trip to Guatemala.

“We went because we were invited; we didn’t sign up for the long-term commitment,” Keller said. “So we said we would go for a week, check it out, and we fell in love with the school, the villages and the people there.”

For the last three years, the Kellers — who attend the Paradise United Church of Christ, where Lisa teaches the adult Sunday School class and is an assistant youth group leader — have served residents in Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala.

They teach vacation Bible school — which attracted at least 300 youngsters to the village’s tiny chapel this past summer — and help with various tasks in the village.

“You may be asked to do a variety of things, so you serve where you’re needed,” Keller said. “We also serve on work crews, so both girls and I built stoves and houses in the morning, and taught vacation Bible school in the afternoon. I can’t build anything, but I can build a stove.”

The family served in Guatemala for 10 days in 2010 and two weeks this summer. And just after Christmas, Keller and daughter Elizabeth are returning so she — currently a junior at PAHS — can illustrate her work and experience in her senior project.

“She knew she wanted to do something big, something in Guatemala,” Keller said. “She was inspired this summer with the changes in the village over the last three years. There’s a lot of improvement in the village, and there’s a lot of hope there, and she said, ‘Mom, I think there’s something I can do.’

“So that has been an extra part of who I am, as a teacher, but as my faith has grown, it has strengthened and become more complete,” Keller said about her Guatemala experience.

Keller said she received the call about her Career Women of the Week nomination while at the Van Dyke studio, where Lena Van Dyke — “She’s the trickster,” Keller said — used creative methods to get her to take the call.

“Jane (Cunningham, of the Career Women’s Club) called, and I thought she was calling to talk to Lena,” who told Keller to say that she was indisposed. That’s when Keller knew the call was for her.

“I was blown away,” she said. “It’s such a nice honor.”

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