Life Lessons from the Bunny Teacher

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Dede Rittman with Arnold Palmer (2)

Dede Rittman with Arnold Palmer

Dede Rittman spent 37 years teaching English at North Allegheny Intermediate, so it’s only natural that upon retiring that she has taken up writing.

When asked why it took so long, Rittman quotes another famous teacher who found fame in his second act.

“I was teaching, that’s what took me so long,” Frank McCourt wrote in the prologue to Teacher Man. “… When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”

For Rittman, the clamor of the classroom was a labor of love. She also ran the talent show for more than two decades, directed the school musical for 10 years, created the theater program and wrote the theater curriculum for three decades. She called her students her “bunnies,” which got her labeled the “Bunny Teacher.”

Oh, the subject of Tuesday’s column also found time to coach golf for 33 years.

Before retiring last week, Rittman got to spend an hour at the WPIAL golf championships with two-time WPIAL champion and PGA legend Arnold Palmer. It should come as no surprise, then, that Palmer was the subject of Rittman’s most recent post on her blog, Lessons Learned from the Bunny Teacher.

“He continues to be a teacher for everyone,” Rittman said. “You think how about how humble he is and how important his roots are to him.”

Dede Rittman with Arnold Palmer 1

I could tell the same about Rittman after one fascinating conversation. She’s retiring as North Allegheny’s boys golf coach, which ends her run as the longest-tenured coach at NA. Rittman started in 1979, so she coached in five different decades. She also was on the WPIAL golf committee since 1980, where she wasn’t just the first female coach.

“I was the only one,” Rittman said. “I think that some people weren’t sure what to do and how to take me. Women had rights then but not the way they do now. When I had to run a tournament by myself, some men would say, ‘I don’t have to do this. You can’t make me do this.’ I’d say, ‘Let me call Mr. (Ace) Heberling.’ He’d say, ‘If Dede tells you to do it, then do it.’ They challenged me at the beginning but it was just a test.”

Rittman’s life has been full of tests, including the death of her beloved husband, Scott Rittman, to colon cancer in 2012. Scott was a volunteer assistant for years on NA’s golf team and worked with his wife on its musicals and talent show.

“We had no children of our own,” Dede said, “so the NA kids got all of our attention.”

Somehow, she found a way to persevere. Rittman started her book project more than a decade ago, writing the first five chapters and revisited it to write another chapter before stopping to become a caretaker. She decided to finish the project and published her first book, Student Teaching: The Inside Scoop from a Master Teacher.

Student Teaching book

“I’m one of those people who believe your attitude not your aptitude will determine your altitude,” Rittman said. “However high a teacher or coach sets the bar, that’s what the kids will meet.”

Rittman believes it’s up to her to practice what she preaches. Among her pet sayings was, “Every person here has something valuable to offer to the others, so we will work together as a group.” She preached manners to her golfers, teaching them to make a positive impression and a lasting one.

“Over nine holes of golf, you’ll learn more about someone than you would sitting next to them in a whole semester or whole year in a classroom,” Rittman said. “True colors show through. Temper, good sport, sharing and caring. You know everything about them. It’s a very social game.”

But its social butterfly is spreading her wings to fly off to new adventures, and Rittman is hopeful that North Allegheny will promote junior varsity coach Patrick Niven to replace her.

She’s leaving with no regrets.

“I’ve had a great career,” Rittman said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

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