Starksboro principal plans year in the tropics
STARKSBORO — The Starksboro community will have to adjust to life next year without their long-time principal. Come August, he’ll be 2,000 miles south.
Dan Noel, principal of Robinson Elementary School, and his wife Nicki Bergstrom-Noel, an English teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School, made the decision to take a one-year leave of absence next year and take their two daughters — Delia, 4, and Hazel, 2 — on the adventure of a lifetime. The two educators are relocating their family to the 65-square-mile Caribbean island of St. Kitts.
Sitting at the approachable round table in his modest office last week, Noel explained the family’s decision.
“This is my seventh year as principal, and the role of principal can be a super rewarding job because you can see a school system grow and develop and feel like you’re a big part of that,” he said. “But the tradeoff is that because I’ve been so committed to the Starksboro community, I haven’t felt as connected as I could to my family.”
For more than a year, Noel and Bergstrom-Noel dreamed about the prospect of teaching in a faraway land, where they and their children could learn about the nuances of a vastly different place and culture. They evaluated their careers and the impact such a decision would have on their children. With Delia moving closer to elementary school, the parents figured there’s no better time than now.
“This is a great opportunity as a family to reconnect and have an adventure,” said Noel. “To have an adventure reinvigorates our lives and puts in our head that anything is really possible … Not only do I hope my kids learn that, but I hope the kids who Nicki and I teach can see that. I hope they say, ‘All you have to do is make a decision and align all of your goals and priorities and work towards making that decision a reality.’”
With countries from Africa, Europe, Asia and South America circling through their imaginations, the family decided to sign up for a teachers job fair in Boston, which showcased international schools from around the world.
Before the job fair, Noel contacted one of the schools from St. Kitts called Ross Preparatory Academy. The family liked the idea of spending a year in a warm and beautiful place filled with lots of sunshine. Unfortunately, the school only had one open position, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher.
Noel disregarded the idea and figured the family would have better luck at the three-day job fair. But once there, Noel and Noel-Bergstrom struggled to find a school that needed two teachers for a year. So after two days of searching together, they split up.
When Noel made rounds, meeting with school after school, he came across the school from St. Kitts. He and the representative instantly hit it off, and Noel offered to have his wife teach while he stayed at home with the kids or mowed lawns or worked odd jobs. Impressed by his enthusiasm, the representative spoke with school officials and she came back offering both Noel and his wife a job.
By the end of the day, the duo had three concrete offers: in Belgium, Paris and St. Kitts.
“Nicki and I thought we’d really appreciate the culture and vibrancy of Belgium and Paris, but our kids wouldn’t have as much access to the kind of experience we want for them,” said Noel. “In St. Kitts there’s swimming and hiking and beaches and we thought it would be better for our family.”
In February, Noel accepted the fifth- and sixth-grade position in St. Kitts and Noel-Bergstrom accepted a seventh- and eight-grade social studies and English teaching position. Noel acknowledged that one of the reasons he and his wife are able to uproot their family for a year is because of their professions.
“Luckily, in the world of education, wherever there are kids, there is a need for teachers,” he said. “That’s a worldwide need. So I feel very fortunate this is a profession I love.”
While Noel is away next year, Pat Hartnett, an eighth-grade social studies teacher from St. Albans Town Education Center, will take his place. Noel explained that Hartnett has held principal positions before, but isn’t sure if he wants to continue down that path.
“He’s excited about the role of interim principal because he’s not sure if he wants to move into a permanent principal role,” said Noel. “So this is a really good fit for him, which means for the school he’s a really good fit too. He’s been great so far with the transition.”
And as thrilled as Noel is to have more time with his family next year in a tropical paradise, he will still miss his students and friends in Vermont.
“I’ll miss the kids. It sounds really cliché but the truth is I come to school because the kids in this school are engaging and interesting and funny and smart and they care so deeply about me that I can’t help but equally care for them. I’ll definitely miss the relationships with the kids and families and staff.”
For a guy who has spent most of his life in Vermont, he’s also a bit apprehensive about the unknown.
“Vermont is where I grew up. This is where my family is from. This is where the vast majority of my friends are. So it scares me a little bit to leave my home,” he admitted. “Moving to an island 2,000 miles away is something I’m really excited about, but it’s also something I’m nervous about because I don’t know what’s in store.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].
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