Walter Panas Teacher Has Spent 40 Years Inspiring Westchester's Students
The veteran teacher says education can't be “one-size-fits-all."
When Van Cortlandtville Elementary School Principal Jacqueline Woodruff’s son, Joseph, came home from ninth grade at Walter Panas High School talking about his new favorite teacher, Jim Filippelli, Woodruff was stunned. It couldn’t possibly be the same English teacher she’d loved decades earlier as a student at Panas, could it?
“I figured Mr. Filippelli must have had a son with the same name who also became a teacher,” she laughs. But she was wrong: It was the same Jim Filippelli who’d helped solidify Woodruff’s passion for literature, writing—and teaching—almost 30 years ago.
Now in his 40th year of teaching, Filippelli has likely inspired thousands of other kids, Woodruff estimates, with the same nurturing approach she recalls so fondly. “Jim is such a dedicated educator, and he thinks about the whole child, not just the academic child. He always wanted to know about my interests, and my family and what was happening in my life, and that really stood out for me,” she explains. “I know he still uses that approach because I watched him do it with my son for two years.”
Though Woodruff’s goal was always to be an educator, Filippelli’s holistic style inspired her teaching philosophy, and helped her see the importance of projecting a passion for what you do. During her 13 years as a third-grade teacher, Woodruff used Filippelli’s approach as her guide. “I made it a priority to focus on the whole child, the way he did. If kids are okay in all the other aspects of their life, they are more available to learning,” she says.
“And today, in my role as principal, I’m a very interactive administrator,” the 46-year-old adds. “I don’t want to hide behind my desk; I love being in the trenches with the kids, and helping teachers bring out the best in their students.”
Ironically, it was behind the trenches of the Walter Panas stage that Woodruff and Filippelli’s connection outside the classroom blossomed: Teacher convinced student to join the stage crew for the school’s musical productions. The experience became one of the highlights of Woodruff’s high-school career. “I loved being part of the stage crew. It brought me into a group of kids that encouraged me in a different way than the neighborhood kids,” she says.
While Woodruff found an inspiring teacher in each of the Lakeland district schools she attended, Filippelli still rises to the top. For him, it’s a testament to his belief in the need for an individualistic approach. “Teaching isn’t one-size-fits-all. Every child is unique and you have to find the ways to bring out their best selves, whether that is in the classroom, or backstage, or on the athletic field,” Filippelli says.