Mr. David Woodburn is known at Saint Mary’s for taking his students places – without leaving the classroom. One example is how his students often have pen pals with fifth graders in other places such as Barrow, Alaska.
Barrow is the northernmost point of all territories in the United States. Native Alaskans there legally hunt whales as a supplement to their sustenance, and they don’t waste any part of the whale. To show his students in Virginia how important whale blubber is for their pen pals in frigid Alaska, Mr. Woodburn made a “blubber mitt” using Crisco as blubber – students felt the striking difference between putting their hands in ice water with and without the blubber mitt.
In addition to writing their Alaskan pen pals, at the end of one school year Mr. Woodburn worked out a FaceTime session with the classroom in Alaska – the Saint Mary’s students could see snow on the ground outside the window of the classroom in Barrow, and the Alaskan students could see the bright, sunny day in Virginia.
This year, after 19 years, Mr. Woodburn will be retiring from teaching at Saint Mary’s. Since he started in 2003, he’s taught both third and fifth grades.
Logan Harvey graduated from Saint Mary’s in 2011 and said he was “lucky enough” to have Mr. Woodburn twice, for both third and fifth.
“When I was young, my parents were big on me watching TV that was ‘educational,’ so I loved the History Channel and the Discovery Channel,” Logan remembered. “I can still remember that Mr. Woodburn would be presenting a lesson and I would ask a question based on something I had watched from either of those channels. A bit of a shocked/curious/impressed smile would start to creep across his face and he would ask: ‘How did you know that?’
“When it came time for final report cards and the departure notes teachers would write, he signed off his note with ‘Keep watching the History Channel.’ – and to this day I still watch some of the programs, whether on YouTube or wherever they may be streamed.
Another Mr. Woodburn memory that’s stuck with many of his former students is his stretch breaks. Saint Mary’s 2018 graduate Jordan Green had Mr. Woodburn for fifth grade. She remembers being grateful for the opportunity during class to stand up, stretch, and get the wiggles out before sitting back down to focus again on classwork.
Like most teachers at Saint Mary’s, Woodburn encourages his students to read. He has a collection of biographies in the classroom that includes individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Amelia Earhart, Mother Theresa, Barack Obama and Mohammad Ali.
Each year fifth-grade students read a book called Number the Stars by Lois Lowry about the escape of a family of Jews from Copenhagen, Denmark during World War II. In concert with that book and its discussion, for several years Mr. Woodburn helped facilitate a visit from a local Holocaust survivor who would come and share his powerful story with the fifth-grade students.
Woodburn came to teaching as a third career. His first job was as a deputy sheriff in Henrico County – a job he held for one year. After that, he worked in the insurance industry for 15 years. When he was laid off at age 40, he recognized that sitting behind a desk every day was something he didn’t want to do anymore. After considering nursing, teaching or a construction business, Woodburn decided to get a master’s degree in teaching, and did so from Mary Baldwin College.
His first teaching job was at Luther Memorial School near the Diamond in Richmond. The school doesn’t exist anymore, but Mr. Woodburn taught second grade there in 2001-2002 until a job became available at Saint Mary’s and he was hired to teach third grade.
It is important to Mr. Woodburn to be able to teach at Saint Mary’s, where he can share his Catholic faith. He said his faith has helped carry him through difficult times; he cherishes being able to share that with his students.
During his first teaching assignment at Luther Memorial, which was Lutheran, the 9/11 tragedy took place.
“Being at a Christian school, we gathered at a time which certainly called for prayer,” Mr. Woodburn said. “What comfort every child, teacher and staff member experienced when we regularly came as one to pray together.
Mr. Woodburn encourages his students to pray daily and gives students the opportunity each day to offer up prayers for special intentions. He lights incense: “The smoke rises to heaven like your prayers do,” he says – and offers his own intentions so students understand what to do. At first, students often keep their prayer intentions to themselves, but usually end the year openly praying aloud.
Patti Benton (pictured above with David) has taught alongside Mr. Woodburn as a fifth-grade teacher for six years.
“Teaching alongside David has been an adventure,” Benton said. “His love for knowledge and his students is always present. David has so many stories to share and usually some pictures to go with them! David loves and respects his colleagues and is generous and kind-hearted. His is the quiet giver.”
Lara Seavey is a Saint Mary’s mom who teaches at Fox Elementary in Richmond; her two daughters (now alumnae) and two sons had Mr. Woodburn.
“I always respected, loved and trusted Mr. Woodburn with my children,” Seavey said. “He wanted the best for all the children and had a sense of humor that we appreciated.”
After retiring, Mr. Woodburn plans to play more tennis, as he meets regularly with a group of doubles players at Rockwood Park in Chesterfield County. He’s an avid gardener and may begin to volunteer at a community garden near his home. He hopes to see more of his daughter and son, who both live in Richmond, and his granddaughter Alice, who is one.
Woodburn’s mom lives in Richmond at an assisted living facility, so he’ll visit more with her too.
And of course Mr. Woodburn has travel plans! His wife, Margaret, has never been to Paris, France, so a trip there is on the horizon sometime soon, he says. In addition, he hopes to go back to Iceland to hike, and to visit his sister and her family in New Zealand. He might try to learn Spanish as a second language. And he’ll practice his guitar.
“In the end I can only hope my presence has made a positive impact on all of the many students I was blessed to teach these many years,” he said. He will miss his students and being at Saint Mary’s every day.