Loretta Wilbur.121814Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Editor’s note: This is the final in series of four articles featuring those who were honored Oct. 24 at the diocesan Fall Conference.

Loretta Wilbur never wanted to be a teacher, but the 2014 winner of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award has found joy and fulfillment at St. Bridget Catholic School, River Falls.

“Now that I finally figured out my vocation, I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she said.
A native of Elmwood, Wilbur lives in Hager City with her husband, Rick. The couple has three children: Alea, 20; Emily, 19; and Brant, 16. They are members of St. Francis of Assisi, Ellsworth, in the Diocese of La Crosse.

The St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award recognizes a teacher whose talents contribute to the quality of Catholic education in the Diocese of Superior. In Wilbur’s case, much of that contribution centers on utilizing technology in the classroom, encouraging collaboration among students and fostering a sense of service.

After earning a degree in biology from UW-River Falls, Wilbur took time off from work to raise her family. She pursued nursing when the kids got older, but she found it wasn’t for her. She then drifted into education-related work and became a substitute teacher; ultimately, she decided to try full-time teaching. It was a perfect fit.

Wilbur joined the staff of St. Bridget’s in 2007, after one year at St. John the Baptist Catholic School, Plum City. She teaches all core subjects to her fifth-grade students – basically everything but music and physical education – and uses iPads, social media, an interactive whiteboard and other technological tools to promote hands-on learning.

“The technology really engages students,” she explained. “When you bring in the technology, it just adds a whole new level of excitement to learning.”

Students often watch Wilbur’s lessons at home – assignment reminders are communicated online via blog – and class time is devoted to projects and collaboration, “not just with their peers, but even for a bigger audience outside the school.”

When iPads were introduced in Wilbur’s classroom four years ago, students used specific applications in some subjects. Now that she’s been teaching with the tools longer, Wilber’s perspective has changed. Alongside textbooks, technology is built into everyday learning, as evinced by the frequent use of iPads.

“It’s so infused into our day … they keep them in their desks, and we just pull them out as needed throughout the day,” she said.

The tools enable a more cumulative, project-based education, according to Wilbur, and they also broaden students’ experiential learning.

“You are pushing for that 21st-century skill set, and you want them to have that when they leave,” she added.

As she prepares her students for academic pursuits, Wilbur also seeks to arm them spiritually.

St. Vincent de Paul is the fifth-grade classroom saint, and Wilbur’s students serve the poor through service projects – collecting shoes for Soles 4 Souls, for example – and their community.

In different ways, Wilbur sees teaching as a ministry – “I have a biology background, and so I’m very passionate about science and sharing my love for creation,” she said – but she’s a little uncomfortable talking about it.

“We have Catholic values and such that we live here every day, but it seems awkward for me to say out loud that I do this as a ministry,” she added.

As a teacher, Wilbur hopes she inspires students’ curiosity. She wants them to develop critical thinking skills and “that ability to communicate well, whether it’s through speaking or writing. I think that’s something they are going to need for their future.”

“I really want them to wrestle with things that are complex,” she continued. “I also want them to understand that although they are fifth-graders, they can do some pretty amazing things.”

Wilbur credits Sue Steckbauer, retired principal of St. Bridget, with transitioning into technology-friendly classrooms. St. Bridget was the first school in the district to have iPads, Wilbur said.

“Students really excel when you allow them to create their own learning path, and give them choice and opportunity,” she observed.

Wilbur considers herself “a relatively new teacher,” so she was more than surprised to learn she’d been honored by the diocese.

“I found out through a letter,” she said. “I literally read it three times, because I was dumbfounded. I was just stunned. I truly was stunned by it.”

“Why me?” she added. “I just didn’t feel worthy.”