Kindergarten teacher took winding road to VUES job

VERGENNES — Unlike some longtime educators, Vergennes Union Elementary School kindergarten teacher Donna Ebel did not grow up convinced she wanted to spend her career working with students.
Ebel followed a winding path to the VUES classroom that has been her professional home for the past 21 years and now for just a few days more — she will step down at the end of the school year.
Along the way Ebel, 61, a Tarrytown, N.Y., native who grew up in the Long Island community of Huntington, worked in several Addison County classrooms as a paraeducator, in the Bristol Elementary and Shannon Street schools, and at VUES after she and husband Rick settled in Ferrisburgh.
But she also made silver jewelry, served as a “spark tester” at Shelburne’s Harbour Industries, ran a childcare center out of her West Ferrisburgh home after she and Rick Ebel started their family, and taught at a private Chittenden County preschool.
Looking back, Ebel said she does not regret not pursuing teaching right out of SUNY-Brockport. There, she did study art with an eye on being an art teacher, but abandoned that plan in favor of majoring in English when New York began laying off art teachers to save money.
“I like the variety. My 20s was about finding what I like to do … and having lots of adventures,” Ebel said. “I had some things to get out of my system before (my children) showed up. But once they showed up, it was hunkering down and being a mom and doing the best job I could.”
But eventually the path became clear and led her to VUES, where all her work with children along the way and the teaching license she picked up in the 1970s has paid off.
“Working with kids and having had my own kids, it was just a natural thing,” Ebel said. “And it’s been great working here. This has been a great place for me to work.”
And according to the past two VUES principals, it’s been great to have her.
Former VUES Principal Sandy Bassett, who retired before this school year after about a decade on the job, praised Ebel’s willingness to serve on committees outside the classroom and called her “a pro’s pro” in the classroom.
“She’s one of the best, if not the best, early childhood educators I’ve met in my career,” Bassett said. “She’s very progressive … She was quick to embrace ideas, and research and study and put them into practice.”
An experienced educator at the elementary school level himself, Bassett said he found Ebel to be a valuable source of knowledge.
“I learned more about early childhood education from her than I ever learned in any early education courses,” he said.
New VUES Principal June Sargent echoed Bassett on that point.
“I’ve relied on her insight several times this year,” Sargent said.
Both wish Ebel well on what comes next.
“We are going to miss her,” Sargent said. “But we are wishing her absolutely the very best in her retirement as she begins to work with horses and do artwork again.”
Certainly, those are two powerful motives to retire. But there are others. Rick Ebel, also an educator (he is a former Lincoln Community School administrator and more recently was the principal of South Burlington’s Orchard Elementary School), retired three years ago.
Donna Ebel would also, among still other things, like to spend more time with him, continue to fix up their old farmhouse, be able to see their now two grown children more often, visit other family members who live elsewhere, and get back into weight training.
“There is so much I want to do, and I don’t want to be glib about it, but work is getting in the way of living right now,” Ebel said. “And I have a lot of living I want to get back to doing right now.”
And she senses that at 61, more than two decades, however enjoyable, in a kindergarten classroom might be enough.  
“I’m slowing down. I can tell. I’m tired by Friday. I want to take a nap by nine o’clock at night,” she said.
Philosophically, she is more in tune with a recently created kindergarten program installed with the help of VUES physical education teacher Robin Newton that combines music and movement with academics, than she is with a newer push for technology at the kindergarten level.
“One of the changes in early education that I’m not a huge fan of is that there’s such an emphasis on computer learning,” she said. “I believe … that kids need to get up and move around and jump and run and develop their physical bodies, and then their learning will develop more fluidly. And there’s all sorts of (research) to prove that.”
Still, it’s never easy to make the retirement decision. Ebel will particularly miss her classroom co-worker of two decades, Wanda Loven.
“I’m very lucky to have worked with my assistant, Wanda, over all these years,” Ebel said. “That’s pretty special, I think.”
Loven said they have come to know each other well.
“We read each others’ minds and finish each others’ sentences, and work really well together,” said Loven.
And they have shared the good and, at times, the challenging.
“We’ve had some great times together,” Loven said.
“We’ve cried together, too,” Ebel said.
Ebel said Loven is part of a community that she believes makes VUES special. She remembered when Rick, then a rookie teacher at VUES, suffered a significant injury.
“They were bringing us food, and that wouldn’t happen in New York, where we were from,” Ebel said. “Here, they were like family, they were so kind to us. And as I taught through the years, I’ve seen that continue in the Vergennes community, which is why we’ve stayed in this community. I was really happy to have my kids go through the Vergennes high school … The school and the community are tied together, to me. I see a lot of parent support here. I see just a great community.”
And she has been particularly happy at the kindergarten level. 
“What I like about this age is it’s a fresh page. You don’t really know who they are. You don’t know what you’re going to get. So for the past 21 years it’s a new book every year,” Ebel said. “No two cohorts are the same, ever, ever. I’ve never been bored with this job. They won’t let you be bored. And you have to be on your toes all the time. They’re so little you can’t take your eyes off them. And they’re really eager. They really want to jump in … Seeing them being confident as learners and getting on that solid footing is a good feeling.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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