Forman, 2001 Teacher of the Year, reflects
MIDDLEBURY — Michele Forman was three years old when she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She recalled enviously watching her five-year-old sister go to school in the morning. When she came home in the afternoon, big sister would play teacher and Michele would assume the role of student.
“I always wanted to be the teacher,” Forman said.
And wow, did her dream come true.
Forman, 69, is retiring this year after a 29-year run as a history teacher at Middlebury Union High School, during which she was named (in 2001) the National Teacher of the Year in recognition of her prowess. She’s now ready to move on to other pursuits, including volunteering on behalf of the young and old alike.
“We’ve had our time,” Forman said of the handful of senior MUHS teachers who are retiring this year. “There are others around us and behind us, and now it’s their time.”
Forman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Brandeis University, and then a masters in teaching from the University of Vermont. She began her legendary teaching career with the Peace Corps, in Nepal, during the late 1960s. She was looking for adventure and an opportunity to help others. She got both in heaps during her two years of teaching middle- and high school students in the small village of Napalganje, in the western-most region of Nepal.
“I loved it,” Forman said. “It was an extraordinary experience. Part of me didn’t want to leave.”
She recalled roughing it with no telephones, electricity or other modern conveniences. A talented linguist, Forman quickly picked up the native language — Nepali — to communicate with the villagers, most of whom had never seen a westerner before.
“I was a novelty,” Forman said with a smile.
The Peace Corps provided Forman with a strip of screening to keep disease-harboring insects out of her basic abode, as well as an in-the-ground pump as a source for fresh water.
“The open wells around there were filthy and laden with diseases,” she noted. “We had to have some safe drinking water, and taught the children how important that was.”
And the children were thirsty for knowledge. Forman brought books to share with her students, many of whom had never read or even seen a book. She recalled a touching conversation with a young Nepalese girl who was incredulous to learn that most American children could read.
“In your country, all the children must be so smart,” the little girl gasped to Forman.
The Peace Corps not only equipped Forman with books, but also a Sears catalogue. That catalogue was not used as a vehicle to promote capitalism. Rather, it served as a photo-laden prop for Forman to teach the villagers about household appliances and other items common to American culture.
Upon her return to the United States, Michele married her husband, Dick, and they decided to settle in Vermont.
“I wanted to go to Vermont; I was Vermont,” Forman recalled of the pull of the Green Mountain State and its independent, rural heritage.
She landed a job with the Vermont Department of Education (DOE) as a drug and alcohol education curriculum specialist. She would spend the next six years helping schools implement programs to make children safer and healthier.
While she found her DOE work interesting, she knew the classroom was where she really wanted to be. Forman successfully applied for a job teaching history at Middlebury Union High School in 1985. Her husband, a jazz musician, found a teaching post at Middlebury College. They ultimately settled in Salisbury.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Once in her element — the classroom — Forman got to work making history come alive for her students. Not a big fan of multiple choice tests, Forman challenged her students to visit landmarks, engage in role playing and embrace civics as a means of learning and experiencing history beyond the confines of the classroom. Her students went on trips to Washington, D.C. to take in sights like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial.
“It was so deep for them” she said of the educational payoff of the trip. “They were very moved.”
She mixed written, visual, musical and oral material to help them understand and appreciate historical events. A Moroccan dinner helped provide insights into the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The class occasionally broke up into small groups to problem-solve and then share ideas with the entire class.
But above all, she took her cue from the students.
“I listened to them, and acted on that,” Forman said. “It can wake students up.”
Forman also gave her students input into how they could be taught.
“Every once in a while you get a group of kids who spark,” she said.
Once such group of students came together in Forman’s history class in 1989. The group was discussing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and noted to their dismay that school was in session on the Martin Luther King’s birthday. Forman’s students decided they wanted to do something to honor the slain civil rights leader. So they planned their own parade from MUHS to the Middlebury town green. They went to their homes and got old bed sheets on which to paint slogans. Forman, for her part, got the local permit needed to conduct the peaceful march.
“Some of the students were worried,” Forman said. “They asked, ‘What if nobody comes?’”
But they needn’t have worried. The group began their March on a chilly Jan. 16, amid a light snowfall. To the students’ great pleasure and amazement, adults watching from the sidelines asked to join in the procession. They sang ‘We Shall Overcome” and reveled in the moment.
Thus was born the MUHS Student Coalition on Human Rights.
“I constantly find that students can open up when you give them a chance and they are incredibly creative,” Forman said.
“What they bring out of themselves is amazing,” she added. “I still sit back and think, ‘I never thought of that.’”
Her teaching techniques would win admirers locally, statewide and nationally. She was thrilled to be named the state’s top educator in 2001. She was shocked that same year to be named National Teacher of the Year.
“I had to pinch myself,” Forman recalled of hearing the news. “It was an honor that meant so much to me.”
She still vividly recalled meeting with then-President George W. Bush in the Oval Office of the White House. After all the pomp and circumstance, Forman was set loose on a year-long expedition to inspire and assist teachers and students throughout the world.
“I was really enjoying it,” she said of the experience.
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 would prompt the federal government to suspend her goodwill globetrotting. She was in Singapore on that fateful day.
“My family was terrified,” Forman recalled of concerns over her safety.
But they needn’t have worried.
“They were the friendliest, warmest people you would ever want to meet,” she said of Singaporeans.
Forman remembered returning in a virtually empty aircraft.
“People weren’t flying,” she said of the nation’s initial reaction to the attacks.
The national attitude toward the Middle East and Islam also took a hit. Forman, on the other hand, remained inquisitive about the Middle East and shared her curiosity with students — in part by establishing an Arabic course at MUHS. Forman also closed a speech in Washington D.C., during her run as National Teacher, with a phrase in Arabic meaning, “All of us are citizens of the world.”
It’s been a great run at MUHS, but Forman is ready to meet new challenges.
She is still asked to speak on education issues. She’s been a dedicated volunteer with Addison County Court Diversion and Hospice Volunteer Services. She would like to help at Elderly Services of Addison County.
Even as she looks ahead, Forman makes no secret about what she will miss most about teaching at MUHS.
“The kids,” she said. “Every day I walk into that classroom, I smile, I laugh, and sometimes I cry.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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