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Retiring OV teacher Michael Dywer earned much respect in 30 years

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Posted on July 9, 2018 |
By Lee J. Kahrs



OV Dwyer retire_1481_CMYK.jpg
OTTER VALLEY HISTORY and English teacher Michael Dwyer sits in his classroom a few days before he retired after 30 years at the Brandon school. Reporter photo/Lee J. Kahrs

BRANDON — In front of the wall of windows in Room A1 at Otter Valley Union High School, a large black plastic trash can was filling up as the school year came to a close last month.

OV English and History Teacher Michael Dwyer had been going through the file cabinets and book shelves for a week, throwing out and sorting 30 years of accumulated materials as he prepared to retire.

As usual, Dwyer was dressed nattily in a green and white checked dress shirt, a vintage lime green vest, and blue and green paisley silk tie. He sat down in his classroom with a reporter before his 10 a.m. class.

“I like to dress up,” he said. “It’s an important part of my classroom persona.”

That persona has made Dwyer, 58, one of the most popular teachers at OV over the last 30 years, where he has taught hundreds of students in advanced placement English, history and in the American Studies Program.

It was that program that brought Dwyer to OV in 1998 as a young teacher. Dwyer’s partner of 37 years, George Valley, was hired at the College of St. Rose, and Dwyer was teaching at Mount St. Joseph’s Academy in Rutland. Both were originally from Massachusetts.

“In May of 1988, when there were more jobs open to teachers than there are now, I had three job offers in one week,” Dwyer said. “Poultney, Fair Haven and here.”

He chose OV because of the American Studies program, and interdisciplinary course that teaches American History and English by integrating music, film and literature into the curriculum. Dwyer taught the history side when he was first hired. He moved to the English side of the program in 1996 when he became head of the English Department.

“So for instance, if you were teaching the Great Depression, you would also teach Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’,” Dwyer explained. “For most major eras of American history, we like to pair it with literature, art, music, even architecture. And I can tell you, a lot of the visual learning stays with the students.”

His enthusiasm for the curriculum is evident, even 30 years later.

“Very few people can say over 30 years that they’ve been able to teach everything they love,” he said.

STUDENT CHALLENGES

It’s no secret that many educators have seen a rise in behavioral issues in the classroom over the last decade, and Dwyer is no exception. But his approach to dealing with those students, in keeping with his classroom persona, is inherently rational, and he says it works.

“When a student acts out, I say, ‘I know your behavior today has nothing to do with me,’” he explained, “‘So, let’s sort it out and figure out a way to deal with it.’”

Dwyer said he has noticed a rise in the emotional needs of students and the challenges facing teachers.

“At a time when we’re upsizing the student/teacher ratio, the irony is the needs of the kids are exponentially increasing,” he said. “And that takes a lot out of you.”

OUT AND ABOUT

Dwyer said he has faced fewer challenges being a gay man in the classroom.

“I’m comfortable being out,” he said matter-of-factly. “I can’t say I developed a thicker skin, but I have become more resilient.”

Dwyer recounted an interaction with the mother of one of his students a few years back.

“She said, ‘I think you are a wonderful teacher, but I hope you know you are going to hell,’” he said. “That hurt, but I think when someone has that much anger, there’s usually something else shaking the fist.”

Deeply religious, Dwyer and Valley were first members of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Rutland before moving to Trinity Episcopal Church in the city. They met at seminary after Dwyer graduated from Boston University.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for faith training, but it doesn’t mean institutional membership,” Dwyer said.

A DIFFERENT PASSION

There is another part of Dwyer that taps into all his interests and skill in history, English, and writing: genealogy. It began as a hobby years ago, as Dwyer said he became fascinated with uncovering the true stories of Vermont’s settlers, with an emphasis on fact rather than legend.

“I think we have a responsibility to be honest and document our history,” he said. “When facts are available, we shouldn’t discard them because they don’t fit our story.”

In 2016, Dwyer became the editor of “Vermont Genealogy,” a journal of the Genealogical Society of Vermont. He also writes a blog called “Vita Brevis,” a genealogy resource for family history from americanancestors.org.

“At 50, I thought, ‘What do I want to do that I haven’t done yet?’” Dwyer said. “I wanted to get some of these long-smoldering stories into print.”

Perhaps Dwyer’s crowning achievement in genealogy happened in 2014, when he was named as one of only 50 living fellows in the American Society of Genealogists.

“There is what I call ‘genealogical healing,’” he said. “Among the emotions people experience in finding their ancestors is curiosity. It’s a puzzle, but when people find out about their ancestors, there’s some healing involved, and some shock sometimes.”

TEARS OF SATISFACTION

He will not be replaced at OV, at least not this year. On one of the last mornings of the school year, Dwyer thumbed through some of the art books he is donating from his classroom to local library used book sales. He said he doesn’t know who will be teaching in Room A1 next year. He had already given away a number of posters, books and videos to students who wanted a piece of his classroom.

He began to tell the story of the open house that parent Jean Corbett threw for him over the weekend, and his voice broke. His eyes wet with tears, Dwyer said he was incredibly moved.

“The kids and the parents who were there, I had all I could do not to bawl the whole time,” he said, choking back tears. “You can’t put a price on that, and there are colleagues in this building who will never understand that. And how good to have such a full heart at the end of it.”

He wiped his eyes.

“Not all my friends can look back on a career with as much fulfillment as I have,” he said proudly. “I have no regrets. I followed my vocation to teach. It’s the start of a new chapter.”

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