DOUGLASTON — When Linda Keppel walked into her first class at St. Stanislaus School in Greenpoint as the new seventh-grade math teacher in 1972, there were 52 students sitting there — a far cry from the 20-to-30 children that occupy an average-size classroom these days.
“As we progressed over the years,” she said while recalling an educating journey that began five decades ago, “classes got a little smaller.”
Keppel has spent 40 years in education in the Diocese of Brooklyn — first as a teacher for 31 years and then as an administrator for nine. She is one of 15 principals who will be honored by Bishop Robert Brennan at the Saint John Neumann Day Mass and reception at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston on May 27.
She is currently the associate principal of Divine Wisdom Catholic Academy in Douglaston, a role she has held since 2013. She loves helping and guiding teachers, especially young teachers.
A lot has changed in Catholic schools in the half-century since Keppel entered the profession. For example, technology in classrooms was almost nonexistent in 1972 and many of the teachers and principals were women religious, not laypeople.
Another difference between now and then: Most schools in the diocese were operated by parishes years ago. Today, the majority are Catholic academies that are overseen by boards of directors and are responsible for their own fundraising.
But some things have remained the same, Keppel said. “The attitude of the kids is the same. They’re looking to be educated and they want to learn,” she explained.
Keppel wanted to be a teacher from the time she was in elementary school. When she was in the fourth grade, her teacher asked her to tutor a new student who didn’t speak English well. “I helped her and taught her English and math,” she said.
At age 16, she taught religious education. “I realized I had a gift for teaching,” she recalled.
Keppel knew where she wanted to offer her gift.
“I always wanted to teach in a Catholic school. My faith is a big part of my life and I couldn’t imagine not sharing it in my workplace,” she added.
She earned a Bachelor’s in Education at Molloy College and holds a Master’s in Religious Education from Fordham University.
Keppel began her career at St. Stanislaus and taught there for a year. In 1973, she moved over to St. Rita’s School in East New York and stayed there for five years.
As she looks back on her career, she sees how much teaching has changed.
“When I started out, the seventh and eighth grade was more like the fifth and sixth-grade curriculum today. We really didn’t get into the higher level of Algebra or Geometry. And it was more of a lot of rote learning,” Keppel recalled.
“Now it’s more about processing and logically thinking through a process so that it’s not just, ‘Here are the steps. Don’t ask any questions,’ “ she explained. “Now, it’s about real-world problem-solving.
“I’ve always said reading is important. If you can’t read, you can’t do math. If you don’t have that comprehension, you’re not gonna be able to figure out any kind of problem.”
The introduction of computers in the classroom was a welcome addition, she said, because it gave teachers another tool to use.
When Keppel married and started a family, she took a 10-year break from teaching to raise her three children.
She returned to teaching in the late 1980s and got a job at St. Mel’s School in Flushing, where she felt right at home. She was and is a parishioner of the Church of St. Mel and is active in parish life as a Eucharistic minister and lector. In addition, she is a lady grand cross in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a Catholic fraternal organization.
Her tenure at St. Mel’s School was memorable for another reason: She had her son Michael in her class one year.
“It was funny because he never called my name when he raised his hand. He didn’t know what to call me!” she recalled with a laugh. “The other kids in the class would whisper to me, ‘Mrs. Keppel, your son is raising his hand.”
In 1992, she left to join the staff at American Martyrs School in Bayside and worked there until the school closed in 2006. Then, she went back to St. Mel’s and taught there until 2013, when she was moved to Divine Wisdom in 2013 as an associate principal.
Part of her job involves giving guidance to teachers. It’s a part she loves.
“I especially enjoy working with young teachers,” she said. “I can share my experience with them and listen to them about what’s being taught in college now, which is very different from when I was in college years ago.”
Keppel has seen the impact of societal changes, too.
“Especially now, you see a lot of grandparents picking kids up because parents are working. And the other thing is that they drop them off at school at seven o’clock in the morning,” she said. “So some of these kids are in school from seven in the morning until six at night. But parents don’t have a choice. They have to work.”
Speaking of work, Keppel said she has no plans to retire. “I really enjoy what I’m doing. Working with the kids and the teachers, I look forward to coming in every day,” she said.