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A Celebration Of A One Of A Kind Educator: Sharing Memories With Frau Joy Minns

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Tuesday December 8, 2009

By Cookie Steponaitis

   When Joy Minns came to Vermont in 1974-75 she worked at a unique collection of jobs. She was working part time as a German teacher at Vergennes Union High School and coaching junior high field hockey. She also worked at the Skihaus in Middlebury and was an avid athlete. Within twelve months of her settling in the Champlain Valley, she was on her first overseas exchange and unknowingly ushered in a German language and exchange program that would last over thirty years and have close to a thousand students involved. What began as a part time job evolved into a cornerstone program at VUHS and earned Joy the title of respect of “The Frau.”

    Joy was born in Baltimore, Maryland and later lived in Pennsylvania for a year. She is the first to admit that, “Language was not my favorite subject in high school. I took French (4 years) and German (3 years). Despite doing well in French, I always had trouble with the accent. German came to me more naturally. I took both French and German in college and also added Russian to the mix.” It wasn’t until her junior year in college that she chose to major in German. Ironically her student teaching experience made her decide against teaching high school and Joy applied to graduate schools. “I applied to graduate schools that spring and was accepted at Penn State as a teaching assistant and grad student,” Joy shared. “I decided to get my doctorate in German and to teach at the college level. At first I loved teaching at the college level but then started to miss the “excitement” of teaching high school. I can’t believe it but I missed the discipline problems that high schoolers gave me. Life is never dull as a high school teacher.”

    Joy set out for Vermont and in her first full time year at VUHS bravely decided to take a group of VUHS German students overseas to Germany. There was no formal program at the time and as Joy recounted the first few trips grayed her hair but not her passion for travel with teens. “I took the first group to Germany in 1976. We went to Berlin as part of the National German Club and much to my surprise, I was the only chaperone for students from all over the country and then the tour guide never showed. What a nightmare! This first trip took years off of my life. The German Exchange program started in the late ‘80s. Heinz Hester, the English teacher at the Goethe School came to Vermont with the aim of starting an exchange with his school in Bochum. The teacher at CVU was willing but didn’t want to do an exchange alone. Someone suggested Vergennes and Heinz showed up at the school one day and tried to convince me that I wanted to do an exchange. I said no but he was persistent. By the winter of the next school year we had our first group in Bochum for a three week stay. Half of our group was from CVU and we did the exchange together for several years. Eventually CVU dropped out of the exchange which worked for us because Vergennes had so many teens who wanted to participate.” Never one to rest of her past practices, Joy took to the air again in 1995 with a group of VUHS students and fellow teacher Pamela Taylor to the Ukraine and again in 1999 to Russia. Both of those trips were life altering for the students.

    Over the span of the next twenty plus years, Joy’s German classes grew so much in size that she would often teach without a break in her day. Never one to turn away a student interested in exploring German she always found another seat and took on another charge. What happened inside a classroom with this one of a kind teacher can only be described by her former students. “Being in a class with Frau was quite epic,” recalled VUHS senior Jacob Step. “She moved from grammar, to speaking, to text, to games and everything in between. You never watched the clock because you were always watching her. You never knew what was coming next but you knew it was going to be fun.”  St. Michael’s College senior Ed Griffin recalls, “Taking German with Frau was not only fun, but academically challenging. Her final exams were legendary and she was always challenging us to learn more, speak more and do more. Even though I am a Biochemistry major, I have developed a love of language and it is due to Frau. I am presently taking Latin, Greek and am still fluent in German.”

    Over the years strange and wondrous rumors about the mysterious Frau circulated through the school. Some included birthday parties that were never correct, stories of unusual travel adventures, shopping experiences, and losing fights with her computer that ended in a concussion. Frau never denied, confirmed, and even further confounded her amused students with ‘id’ photos of herself in high school or was that Marilyn Monroe? All questioning was of course in German, and the answers set the students on further inquiries, all in the proper German communication as they attempted to decode the mysteries of Joy Minns.”

    One rumor that was absolutely true was her famous frugality that earned her the title of “Frugal Frau” and when asked about that particular title, Joy admitted that the faculty and students were very correct in that nickname. “Frugal is a kind word. Yes, I am extremely frugal. I use a paper towel or a lunch bag until they scream to be thrown out. I save and re-use almost everything. It is impossible for me to throw food out no matter how old it is. A former student used to bring her outdated food into school and give it to me. After she graduated her mother showed up with a big bag of outdated yogurt!” And, no one could travel like Frau Minns. Each trip to Germany was action packed and bottom basement priced. If there was an incentive, rebate, or government program to help cut costs, Joy would find it.

    One thing that kept her at VUHS for so long in her career was the relationship between herself and the community and the tight knit bond with the faculty. Joy remarked about her years at VUHS.  “VUHS was ‘famous’ throughout Vermont for having one of the friendliest faculties. We all got along, socialized together often, were helpful to one another, and just generally enjoyed working together. Faculty members would leave for greener fields financially but would always say that they missed the camaraderie they felt at VUHS. It also has a great group of students. I loved my classes and enjoyed coming to work each day. The students were (for the most part!) interested in learning, enthusiastic, sympathetic, helpful, and just great people!”

    While Joy retired from the VUHS classrooms officially three years ago, her past students are still in touch on Facebook and many sent questions for this reporter to research. Joy still has a few secrets but shared that her students past and present would be surprised to learn that that, “I used to have honey blond hair…that I don’t use my legal first name…that I can be an impulsive person and an impulsive spender!.” Still passionate about teaching and about travel, Joy is in her third year of teaching German at the Champlain Valley Christian School as well as teaching adult education at Burlington High School and mentoring Champlain Valley Union’s Project Graduation. With her long planned Hawaii trip a reality, Frau is gearing up for more overseas adventures and remarked, “My next travel adventure will be a trip to Vienna and then on to Oberammergau for the Passion Play this summer.”

    Joy offers some sage encouragement and advice to newcomers in the field of education. “Every community has a personality. Know your community and be a part of it,” Joy explained. “Don’t just put your time in each day. Teaching is one of the most time consuming jobs around but you have to put your heart and soul into it to be an effective teacher. The first years are the hardest but the job never gets easy.”  These words of wisdom are from a veteran educator who continues to be a one of a kind presence in the classroom and one that hooks each new class and generation into a lifelong journey with German and travel. Several senior classes have dedicated Yearbooks to her and other past students struggle to put into words what Joy Minn’s teaching and staunch demanding of excellence did for them as students. Different Yearbook write ups have started with “Wow, It’s the Frau, One more across the sea, and Nobody does it better.” One thing is certain. Joy Minn’s indelible style in the classroom will always stand alone and her passport testifies to her above and beyond ethic about traveling with students for three weeks in a foreign country. The Valley Voice salutes Joy Minns and perhaps in later articles, Frau will share some of her secrets to frugal travel that we can all share. For now, it is simply enough to say, “"Frau Minns ist einfach die Beste.”!”  In English, Frau Minns is simply the best!

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