By Nancy Richardson
Five teachers at Charlotte Central School will be retiring next year after an average each of 30 years spent teaching. All but one teacher had taught exclusively at CCS. As a sometime student of public management in various roles, I was intrigued by the idea that committed professionals might spend an entire career in the same institution. So, I pursued with pleasure interviewing Kathy Lara, Penny Stearns, Leslie Thayer, Kris Gerson, and Christa Duthie-Fox.
Penny Stearns was a math teacher for 30 years in the Burlington school system. She then spent the past six years as math coordinator at Charlotte Central School. When asked about the major contributors to her success here, she spoke of the welcoming attitude of teachers and staff, and the support they receive from families and students. Penny has been in many different schools, and she considers CCS one of the best. “It really does take a village.” she said, and highlighted the flexibility of the community, especially during this past pandemic year.
Leslie Thayer, a K-4 teacher, has spent 34 years at CCS. She also highlighted the “wonderful community and administrators” as key elements in her successful career here. This sense of cohesive support present in the staff and leadership persisted across years and changes in administration. She described how the teachers had a running start in dealing with pandemic in the area of technology because of prior training. But starting in the spring of 2020, when schools closed suddenly, they “learned on the fly.” White boards and webcams were set up in teachers’ homes, and they had to determine rapidly how and what to teach. The fact that 3rd grade students were able to adapt to wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping their distance was unexpected and gratifying. Flexibility among students, teachers, staff, and principals was also a major element.
Another K-4th grade teacher, Kathy Lara, is retiring after 30 years. In discussing pedagogical changes over the years, she mentioned the
importance of a team of teachers and the constant “learning and reflection” that occurs when a group of dedicated individuals work together toward important goals. During her tenure, classrooms went from being self-contained to accommodating multi-aged students. The mathematics curriculum changed, and the use of technology in teaching presented both continuing challenges and learning opportunities. Kathy complimented Bonnie Birdsall and the Central Administration for supporting technology teaching as a priority. Overall, the ethic of “community support and the sense of belonging” were again cited as the enduring characteristics of Charlotte Central School.
Kris Gerson is a first and second grade teacher who retired at the end of the 2020 school year after 20 years of teaching and did not teach during the current year. She describes the transition last spring to remote instruction as extremely challenging. District training programs had given teachers competency in using different platforms and instruments like Google Docs, but suddenly teachers were producing programs from their kitchens. Often, they would have webcams, phones, and computers going at the same time. Once, half of her class went remotely to the wrong site when she received a phone call from another teacher stating, “What happened? I have half of your class in my room.” Kris describes her experience at CCS as being in “a very supportive professional environment.” Over the years there were changes in curriculum that required all teachers to work together, and Kris used the words, “helpful, supportive and amazing” to describe this effort.
Christa Duthie-Fox was a member of the five new teacher class of 1994 and has taught science and mathematics for 27 years. She identified Monica Smith as the perfect leader for a new group of teachers in 1994 and that strong leadership has been present at CCS across time. Christa was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2008, the highest award by the United States Government for teachers of mathematics and science. She accepted the award at the White House, where she met President Obama. She highlighted the strong teams she has been a part of at CCS, the emphasis on basic science content, and “always the project- based approach” curricula which she helped to develop. She described her work in this way: “I have had the awesome privilege of teaching the next generation.”
Across the five conversations, the five most commonly mentioned characteristics that are common in successful schools and present at CCS are: (1) learning and reflection across disciplines; (2) a team centered approach; 3) community and staff support; (3) flexibility and the ability to adapt in extreme circumstances; and (4) moving towards school goals consistently in day-to-day operations.