Patty Compeau said she hates being bored, but it’s hard to believe her.
When has this woman ever been bored?
Compeau is a go-go-getter, a tirelessly creative advocate for science education and one of those teachers who realizes that the curriculum doesn’t count unless human connection is there, too.
She will be recognized by the La Cañada High School Alumni Association at halftime of the 7 p.m. alumni men’s basketball game on Wednesday, Nov. 23, in Hotchkin Family Gymnasium.
Members of the active alumni group voted to honor her as the third Alumni Choice winner, recognition that annually is bestowed upon a favorite teacher of yesteryear. The two previous winners were history teacher Marine Chahine and math instructor Todd Kissel.
“We felt it was important to engage the alumni and so we thought, why not engage them by honoring their favorite teachers?” said the alumni association’s Brent Kuszyk, also a LCUSD Governing Board member.
Compeau is an all-time favorite.
Gavin Williams said her name came up constantly during his recent 20-year reunion. As a former pupil of Compeau’s, he gets it.
“I was part of a pilot program that she wrote with another teacher to combine math and science, kind of in the spirit of the new S.T.E.M. stuff we’re doing now,” Williams said, joking that he still doesn’t know why he was registered in the course because his peers were “more intelligent” than he was.
“I remember that poor woman arguing with me about lab write-ups,” he added. “But I remember her pulling me aside one time and telling me, ‘If you just study, I know you can do well.’ And one time she called my mom and asked if she could talk to Gavin. I was probably watching football or something, and she asked, ‘Are you studying?’ And I said, ‘I am now.’”
Compeau grew up in La Cañada Flintridge and attended La Cañada Elementary School, La Cañada Junior High and Muir High School. After graduating from the University of Redlands, she earned her master’s degree at Stanford, where an outside-of-the-box education program imparted many important lessons: “TV instruction was new, but I got to see myself on TV, and, oh, my gosh, I learned never to sneeze. Never sneeze! It just shocks everybody and you look like an idiot.”
Compeau officially retired from full-time teaching in 2014, but she’s still plenty busy, tutoring students who are considered severely gifted and returning regularly to campus, where she leads the 7th-grade science Olympiad team and teaches high school STEP courses in biotech and medical science on Wednesdays and science outreach and leadership on Thursdays.
Her newfound interest in teaching biotech and medicine was borne of personal loss after her daughter-in-law Phoebe lost an eight-year battle with breast cancer.
“I promised her I would do whatever I could to help, everything I could in research to prevent cancer,” said Compeau, who recognizes similar motivations in her students taking that course. “Often, almost all of the time, the kids want to find ways to help their grandparents, or their uncle who has dialysis or an aunt or their mom, who has cancer.”
Compeau connects with those students, she said. Of course, she always found a way to reach kids.
“Human connection comes out when you open the door differently,” said Compeau, the teacher who introduced and facilitated so many important programs at LCHS.
Hired initially by the district in 1966, she worked for a year before taking an eight-year hiatus to raise her sons, Dag and Aram. She returned to the classroom in 1983 finding ways to open the door to ambitious new learning adventures, including the Rainforest Institute, which brought students on study excursions to Peru and Belize.
There was also TOPS (Teachers + Occidental Partnership in Science), which introduced a host of biology-based workshop opportunities; the NASA Kid Sat Liaison, in which she chaperoned students for camera-to-astronaut training in Houston and to a shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s summer teaching program.
She also introduced the Yosemite Institute more than 25 years ago. Now referred to as the Nature Bridge Program, the annual field trip is an anchor of the school’s environmental education.
“She’s one of four or five high school teachers I would put on one hand as a reason why La Cañada [High School] is known,” said Williams, who recalls clearly how inspired he was by Compeau’s class.
No, he didn’t go into science or math — he became a teacher.
“I absolutely stole her commitment,” Williams said. “It wasn’t about what work she gave, it was the way she worked for the kids. She truly got what it was to be a teenager.”
“It’s about doing things that move brains beyond just ‘do your homework and be quiet,’” Compeau said. “I always hated being bored, so whenever I could find some way to do something that would push somebody or pull somebody toward caring, I would do it.”