Longtime VUES educator to step down — but return

VERGENNES — After 49 years of teaching, 44 of those either full- or part-time at Vergennes Union Elementary School, Marilyn Woods will retire this month at the age of 72.
Well, sort of.  
Woods and VUES Principal June Sargent are cooking up a plan that will allow Woods — who since 2007 has taught third- and fourth-grade science and social studies at VUES after spending most of the rest of her time there in a third-grade classroom — to return next year as a volunteer to work with students and teachers at all grade levels in a variety of roles.
Staying on makes sense to Woods, who said she began teaching at the elementary school level five decades ago for one central reason.
“I always had summer jobs with kids. It was always kids, kids, kids,” Woods said. “It was just working with kids I found fascinating.”
That is what kept her in the profession, and is why she is not simply walking away.
“That’s why I stayed in so long, because of the kids,” Woods said. “That’s why … I am so excited about the fact … next year I am volunteering.”
In a perfect world, Woods might not retire at all. But she is a longtime multiple sclerosis patient, and last fall she also learned she has a heart problem. Woods said medication for the new condition has slowed her.
Meanwhile, the VUES enrollment, like that at other schools, has been dropping: Woods’ job was cut. As the senior teacher, she could remain on the payroll, but that would mean a co-worker would lose a job.
All things considered, and with Sargent willing to create a unique volunteer arrangement, Woods decided the time was right.
“Last fall I found out I had a heart condition. Who knew?” she said. “So I have all these things, which is part of the reason I said OK. And they cut my job. And I don’t want to take anybody else’s job. So I said it’s time. My body’s telling me something here.”
But Woods declined to take the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union’s early retirement package because it “would be like being paid to not work.” Nor did she want regularly scheduled part-time work.
“I want to be free and clear and be here at times that are good for me physically and to really sense how I can be of use,” Woods said.
That was fine with Sargent, who praised Woods’ “enthusiasm and gung-ho positive attitude” and said Woods would be an asset when the fine points are worked out for her volunteer program — for which Woods will provide thousands of books and Legos she owns.
“We’re looking forward to having her come back and provide some enrichment activities for kids,” Sargent said. “We really haven’t worked out any details yet, other than we’ve committed a space for her and she’s packed some of her stuff.”
Former VUES Principal Sandy Bassett, who worked with Woods for more than a decade, also gave her high marks. Bassett said Woods helped the administration use school-wide test results to shore up educational weak points, and he cited her advanced technical knowledge and her dedication to uncovering and using “new and contemporary methods” in her classroom.
More than anything, Bassett pointed to Woods’ dedication to her students.
“She loved to teach and loved the kids,” Bassett said. “Teaching was her life. She will tell you that.”
In fact, Woods did so. She could not pick out any highlights from her one year as a VUES first-grade teacher, her decade spent both as a part-time art teacher at VUES and a part-time photography teacher at Vergennes Union High School, her 25 years in third grade, and her past six years as a science and social studies instructor.
“They’ve all been good experiences,” she said. “Teaching is my passion, and I love it. I don’t get up in the mornings and say, ‘Oh, god, I have to go to work.’ I feel so fortunate that I found something I just love.”
It did not take her long to find teaching. Woods grew up in the northern New Jersey town of East Hanover. Her father was an electrical engineer, and her mother loved poetry and literature. Woods said their love of learning profoundly affected her and her younger three siblings, who have either taught elementary school or college, or married college professors, or both.
“My parents were very smart. They valued education so much,” she said.
Woods knew she wanted to teach, “even from the time I was little and playing with dolls … I just loved my teachers. I loved my school.”
She met her husband (they are now long since divorced, but Woods said they are on good terms), a clergyman, while in college. She went with him to Kansas, and earned her teaching degree at Kansas State University. After four years of pastoral assignments in Virginia and New Jersey, he was sent to Burlington in 1969. Woods subbed for a year at VUES and taught first grade in Weybridge for a year before her first regular position at VUES, in first grade for a year.
Woods said she has been thrilled to spend so much time at VUES,
“I love this school. I really truly do. It is my family,” she said.
One reason why is the tight-knit nature of Vergennes, Woods said, and another is the school has always been well run and its administration has backed the teachers.
“I think the community is really supportive. OK, so yeah, we have troubles. So does every other community. And yes, there’s poverty and there’s this and that. But somehow it’s a wonderful place,” Woods said. “And I’m going to get a little sappy. There’s a kind of caring and love here that we try to make this a really good place to be. People can feel safe and comfortable, and there is also discipline enough to keep it going without chaos. It’s just a wonderful community all the way around.”
As well as volunteering at VUES, Woods will also spend time learning more about that community — online, at the Bixby Library, and with local historical societies. Some of that information she will bring back and share at VUES.
“Now, with ancestry.com, and the Internet, and the Bixby Library and all of the things that are there, I’ve not only been able to go back into my own family … which is like the whole story of America, but also the whole town of Vergennes and the whole school system, how things worked. You see change over time, and you see firsthand accounts, and you see photographs, and it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s not getting stuck in the past, it’s looking to the future to share that with kids.”
Really, she plans to pursue further the life of the mind.
“I get aggravated sometimes that I can’t do things,” Woods said. “But now I have a lot more time to do the history reading that I love and just projects … I’ve been too busy to go to historical society meetings or anything like that, but now I’ll have the time to connect with the people who are interested in some of the same things, and that will be wonderful.”
Travel will be problematic, but the sale of her late parents’ property in New Jersey left her financially able to completely renovate her Ferrisburgh home and stay in the area.
“I’m having my house fixed so that it is handicap accessible and it’s all on one floor. I can be there,” Woods said. “It’s just been a wonderful project.”
She will continue to be a “cyber-granny” to her son’s young children in Indiana and use social media to stay in touch with her daughter in New Mexico.
And she will devote herself to VUES and her own intellectual pursuits.
“Even though I can’t travel and it’s getting harder and harder to walk, my brain keeps going,” she said, adding, “My motto has always been ‘Learn something new every day.’”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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