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Former student returns to St. Greg’s to teach beside her mentor


Allegra Perna and former student, now co-phys. ed. instructor, Shannon Gilbert cheer on the Bills during a Dress Down Day at St. Gregory the Great School in Williamsville. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

The day will come when the student becomes the teacher. At St. Gregory the Great School that day happened last year, when Shannon Gilbert began her teaching career as the Williamsville elementary school’s physical education instructor alongside her former teacher Allegra Perna.

They both share a love of sports, and a love for the family atmosphere that St. Greg’s provides. After 36 years teaching at the school, Perna keeps the job fresh by adding new activities each year that teach the basics of physical fitness and develop the needed muscles and motor skills.

“I want the children to have fun. In the same respect that they’re learning the lifetime skills that they’re going to need to succeed,” she said. “I absolutely am not about – at this level – about winning and losing as much as the sportsmanship, the fairness, and having fun.”

Gilbert’s main goal is to create a completely positive environment for the pre-K through eighth-grade students. “Because when they’re positive with what they’re doing, or they’re excited to do what they’re doing, they’re just going to thrive. They thrive because their skills are good or they thrive because they’re having fun,” she explained. “My main goal is for them to be positive, to have fun, and work hard because maybe the skill of catching a football isn’t something that they’re going to use throughout their life, but the skill of getting outside of their comfort zone, trying something new and understanding it’s OK to be good at it, it’s OK to be bad at it. You’re getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, and that’s a really important life skill.”

Perna still recalls Gilbert in class nearly a decade ago.

“She was great. Always happy, always willing to help, like she does now. It wasn’t always about her.”

She calls their current working relationship “awesome.”

“I’ll be honest. She blew me out of the water,” Perna said. “I taught with a young man for 11 years and we got along phenomenally. I was worried about somebody this young coming in and wanting to do it their way. You have people that say it’s my way or the highway or I’m not going to listen and I don’t want to learn, and you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve been here for 36 years. How can you even possibly help me? She does help me. I hope I’ve helped her. It’s been cool.”

She gets a little choked up talking about working with her new partner.

Still, Gilbert won’t let her forget that at her graduation, when all the school honors were being handed out, young Shannon did not receive the coveted PE Award.

“Many times she lets me know that she really did expect to have that PE award. I didn’t give it to her,” Perna explained. “So, somewhere along the line, I’m going to get an honorary certificate that says Shannon Gilbert should have been my PE person. Why I didn’t give it to her, I don’t know.”

As a teacher, Gilbert has had to get creative. She has only taught under Covid restrictions. This bars a lot of team sports. Even three-on-three basketball is out of bounds because the ball has to be sanitized before each student handles it.  

“We have definitely gotten creative. We found some different things online,” Gilbert said. “Little ones, especially giving them the core skills that they need – those gross motor skills, fine motor skills – helping them in phys. ed. class, but doing it in a way where we’re being socially distanced. They’re keeping their masks on. When we’re outside, they can have a little bit of a break, but then keeping their attention because they’re outside and they’re so little and they get distracted so easily. Teaching during Covid is definitely challenging, but also extremely rewarding because the kids were able to come back in the building. They were able to have a community atmosphere again.”