Dr. Wendy Galson, a retired school psychologist from Mt. Airy, directed the film. For more information, call 215-685-2095. (Photo by Greg Windle)

by Len Lear

Most of us have had teachers who were, shall we say, less than exciting. But we have also all probably had teachers who were dedicated, articulate, caring, even inspirational role models who truly changed lives. Denise “Dee” Haines, a Mt. Airy resident for 46 years, is firmly in the latter category. And while not many of these memorable teachers have been the subject of a documentary film 13 years in the making, Haines has.

Now retired, Haines was a beloved teacher of young children in several local independent schools including Greene Street Friends, Plymouth Meeting Friends and the now-defunct University City New School. As the culmination of her career, she opened a school in her own home from 1989 through 2005. It was called the Classroom on Carpenter Lane (CCL) and was a single classroom of up to 12 students per year, spanning the grades of kindergarten through 2nd or 3rd grades. Her students and their families love her.

“I have known Dee in many capacities,” said Dr. Wendy Galson, also of Mt. Airy. “She taught my children, and I apprenticed with her for several years … I have recently retired from the School District of Philadelphia as a school psychologist.

“During the final year of CCL, 2004-2005, I visited CCL one day per week and shot hours of video footage, which took me the next 13 years to make into a feature-length documentary which provides glimpses into how Dee worked with young children. It is an inspiring film for parents of young children, teachers and teachers in training.”

The 88-minute film, called “Empress of Everything; Messages from a Master Teacher,” will be shown at Lovett Memorial Library, 6945 Germantown Ave., on Saturday May 18, 2 p.m. Haines will be in attendance. The film will be shown again in the fall under the auspices of the Friends Free Library in Germantown.

Galson, 68, grew up in Syracuse, New York, and went to college at Antioch in Ohio. She studied clinical psychology at the Graduate School of Hahnemann University, and with her wife, poet Susan Windle, moved from Center City to Mt. Airy 37 years ago. She earned a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology in 1981 and worked as a school psychologist in the Philadelphia suburbs and then in the School District of Philadelphia, retiring last June. She still conducts a private practice of adult psychotherapy in her home.

Denice “Dee” Haines, of Mt. Airy, is a beloved retired teacher and the subject of an 88-minute documentary film, “Empress of Everything; Messages from a Master Teacher,” which will be shown at Lovett Memorial Library, 6945 Germantown Ave., on Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. (Photo by Greg Windle)

But after college, Galson did have some experience with filmmaking. For example, she was a production manager for a documentary film, “RD Laing in the USA,” by Peter Robinson (1972- 1973). Prior to that, Galson was one of the subjects of “Asylum,” a documentary film Peter Robinson made about the RD Laing communities in London. (Laing, 1927- 1989, was a legendary Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness.)

But why make a film about Haines?

“In The Classroom at Carpenter Lane,” Galson replied, “she paid attention to the interactions between the children, let the children know that they had been deeply seen, offered developmentally appropriate autonomy, provided individual attention, provided long playtimes as age-appropriate … and integrated social/emotional learning into every part of the day and taught the basics of democracy.”

The film seems primarily to have been made for other teachers to learn how to “pick up important refinements to their art. Some possibilities include: How to run a morning meeting and a class meeting, how to organize and build community in a classroom, how to talk deeply to children; how to teach young children to respect themselves and others and solve problems in a civil way.”

Galson’s own favorite teacher was “my 11th grade English teacher, Miss Kay Kasberger, who really let me know that she liked my writing and was enthusiastic and passionate about drama and literature. She was inspiring as a person, and I tried to be like her on my way to becoming myself.”

Galson’s older son, Gabriel, 33, is archives project manager at the Temple University Library who was with Ms. Haines in kindergarten through 3rd grade at the Classroom on Carpenter Lane (1991 to 1995). Her second son, Greg Windle, 27, is an education journalist with The Public School Notebook who was with Ms. Haines in kindergarten through 2nd grade (1997 to 2000). “They both said Ms. Haines was the best teacher they ever had.”

More details about the “Empress of Everything” screening at 215-685- 2095. The film can be viewed and downloaded on Vimeo. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com