Teacher gives lessons to live by

Hayward Lions Club honors Winnie Thompson for her work with struggling adults

By Michelle Meyers

June 8, 2004
Lessons To Live By

"Education is the key to success, but you have to keep it fun and exciting. It shouldn't be
drudgery." Winnie Thompson

WINNIE THOMPSON, recently honored as the Hayward Lions Club's Distinguished Citizen of . the Year, doesn't just teach her Hayward Adult School Learning Center students subject matter such as English, math and science. She teaches them life lessons, sometimes indirectly. "She opened my whole world up," said Rashaad Jackson, who came to Thompson out of jail ready to give up on life and is now close to getting his General Education Development credential. "She taught me how to smile in the face of difficulties."

Student Marcella White, who has struggled with math 10 years out of high school, said Thompson often reminds her to stay calm and take deep breaths. "But it's not just her suggestions, it's the fact that she's willing to work with you," White said. "She's got a lot of patience. She'll go over something for two hours until we get it." And student Belia Madrigal said Thompson "gave me confidence" and fueled her interest in helping others, she said. "It was good to know that in this world there are people who like to help," Madrigal said.

In addition to imbuing her students with such wisdom - many of whom struggle with family problems, language barriers and other social hurdles - Thompson has been heralded for her unique methods in turning some lives around. "Education is the key to success," said soft-spoken Thompson, a Castro Valley resident. "But you have to keep it fun and exciting. It shouldn't be drudgery."

One method she uses is teaching through an adult literacy book she authored, Fast Forward to Phonics. Another is through a book she is editing called My Name is America, a collection of her students' life stories, which are both heart-wrenching and inspiring at the same time.

On their first day of school, Thompson has each student read the life stories, including a cover page about how adult school can help them become productive members of society, keep them from sinking back into "depression, drinking, drugs or detention" and let them enjoy school for the first time.

"When I read how difficult some of their lives were, it made me feel like they're not too different from myself," said student Laverne Edwards, adding that if they could make it, so could she.

Although she earned a teaching credential from Cal Poly University long ago, Thompson didn't start teaching until she attended the adult school—Formerly Sunset High School—as a computer student. She later got a master's degree in on-line teaching curriculum development from Cal State Hayward.

Genie Lester of Castro Valley, a friend and colleague who nominated Thompson for the award, said a lot of what Thompson does isn't visible, in part because of her own modesty. Sometimes its going the extra mile to help students find jobs. Other times it's working her magic in her role as fairy princess A. Startlin' Bell, a personality she often portrays for the community for free.

"She always does her share, and more," Lester said, adding that she uses a sweet optimism "to do what other people can't accomplish."

Ursula Batz, who introduced Thompson at the Lions Club award luncheon in mid-May, said she doesn't just teach, she helps her students "find their way through the community."

Thompson's list of community activities is long. To name a few, she is a board member of the Hayward Library's Literacy Council, where she has tutored since 1990; a co-host of Channel 28's Best Kept Secrets show encouraging volunteerism and community involvement; serves on the Hayward Arts Council; and is President-elect of the area branch of the National League of American Pen Women.