Jackie Nienow, a favorite of students, retires from Mary Hogan School
MIDDLEBURY — One of Jackie Nienow’s most vivid childhood memories is of her father bringing home a classroom-size chalkboard that had been orphaned by renovations to a nearby school.
“I was in fourth grade and I taught school all the time in the neighborhood; I even had parent conferences,” Nienow chuckled in recalling how she put the chalkboard — and her blossoming teaching talents — to good early use. “My mother used tell me, ‘Think about all the free child care you’re providing.’”
The more she helped other children, the more resolute she became about her career path.
“I knew from 10 years old on that I was going to be a teacher,” Nienow said. “There was no question about what was going to be my major.”
Nienow stayed true to her word, and thousands of Middlebury-area children are grateful for her decision. But all good things have an end, Nienow is retiring this year from full-time teaching after a 37-year career, most of it spent in Addison Central Supervisory Union schools and primarily at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary.
“I’ve loved every year of my teaching,” Nienow said. “For me, teaching is really about building self-confidence and learning to problem-solve. The curriculum and the standards change; they are always evolving. But children need to feel good about themselves, that they can ‘do it,’ that they can solve problems and they can find their voice.”
Jackie and her husband, David, hail from Wisconsin. They agreed soon after getting married that they wanted to move to Vermont, a state they admired for its rural, scenic and independent character.
“We were going to give it two years,” Nienow recalled of their decision during the late 1970s. “I married my college sweetheart and went on an adventure to try living in Vermont, and never left.”
David Nienow found local work as a chef, and Jackie looked to jump-start her fledgling career as an educator. She nailed down her first job, in 1978, with the Vermont Achievement Center in Rutland, working with disabled children.
She spent one year at that job before beginning what would become a 36-year teaching association with the Addison Central Supervisory Union. She signed on in 1979 as a grades 4/5 teacher at Weybridge Elementary School, where she would spend the next eight years.
In 1987, with the birth of the Nienows’ third child, Jackie transitioned to “long-term substitute” status within the ACSU for three years. This allowed her to serve substantial teaching stints with elementary schools in Bridport, Salisbury, Cornwall — and then Mary Hogan Elementary, where she would spend the majority of her time.
“I’ve loved the small schools and ending up at Mary Hogan seemed too big to me at the time,” Nienow said during a recent interview at her home, where she has been nursing a back ailment that has cut her final year a little short.
She started her Mary Hogan Elementary career in a job-share role in 1990, in tandem with fellow educator Marg Collins. The pair each taught science and social studies for half the day, primarily to third- and fourth-graders. When Collins retired in 2000, Nienow took over the teaching post on a full-time basis.
“What was really nice about Mary Hogan was that my kids all went to school there,” Nienow said, though she never had any of them in her class. “When I was part-time, it was great to have us all be there together. That was a wonderful opportunity to be able to stay a teacher and to be a mom.”
Those children are now grown up: Emma is 33, Mike is 30 and Mary is 27. Mary is a kindergarten teacher’s aide at Mary Hogan Elementary.
“One Nienow leaves, and the other comes in,” Jackie said with a laugh.
Nienow earned a reputation as a student favorite at the Mary Hogan School, and captured many a student’s imagination with her history lessons.
“I love historical fiction,” Nienow said. “I remember coming up here and realizing the rich history in Addison County, from Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, all the museums that were here. I felt I was right along there with the kids in learning about founding fathers of Middlebury and all that.”
Nienow’s students learned about local history and geography in diverse ways — inside and outside of the classroom. They made miniature log cabins and took field trips to the Ann Story Cabin in Salisbury. They donned colonial attire for “old-fashioned school day.” They spent an entire day each year on a 100-mile bus tour of Addison County, taking in such sights as area farms, orchards, sites on Creek Road once settled by Native Americans, the Underground Railroad stop at the Rokeby Museum, and other places where history was, and continues to be, made.
“I wanted students to get a sense, when we were doing map skills, how big the county was and how diverse it could be,” she said. “I finally thought, ‘Why not put them on a bus and drive them around the county?’”
Each student kept a tour logbook of geographic features and other interesting observations.
“Building a working community is really the key to successful learning,” she said. “If you can work as a team and believe in yourself, there isn’t anything you can’t tackle.”
Given her longevity, Nienow has in some cases been teaching the children of the children she taught years ago.
“I have one in my class right now, I had her dad in third grade and again for fifth grade,” Nienow said with a smile. “It’s fun. It always has this immediate connection that the child knows that I was there for their mom or dad. That just gets them comfortable, right off the bat.”
Nienow has prided herself on emphasizing to students that they should consider the classroom a safe place. She has also made the extra effort to see her students outside of the classroom in sports contests or other extracurriculars. She’s seen a lot of soccer, basketball and other district sports contests to cheer, but also send a deeper message.
“Sometimes, there are kids who need that extra boost in school,” Nienow said. “If they see you (in the stands), they know you have their back.”
When students graduate from Nienow’s class, she lets them know they have not seen the last of her.
“I always tell them that once they’ve been in my class, we go from teacher-students, to friends for life,” she said. “I’ll always be there for them if they need somebody to give them guidance on this or that. I have kids that stop by all the time, past students, that will come home from college or visit and pop in my room, and that’s the real thrill — to see them after they’ve grown up.”
Two members of Nienow’s first class at Weybridge Elementary are now teachers within the ACSU. Another became principal at Shoreham Elementary.
“I’d think, ‘Wow, not many people get to see what happens to their kids later on, and I get to watch mine in action,’” Nienow said.
She’ll miss seeing children at school, and of course will also miss her teaching colleagues.
“My best friends are all my co-workers,” she said. “There’s a lot of things you go through, from losing teachers and all sorts of stuff. We are all there for each other. What’s been most rewarding is who I work with as well as the kids I teach.”
While she has loved teaching, Nienow is ready to retire as a full-time educator. Her back has affected her mobility and she wants more time to spend with her family, including her young grandkids. But she will gladly offer her services as a substitute teacher, and she and David have no plans to move away. The family business, Nino’s Pizza, is based in Middlebury. She is also considering writing and publishing some travel guides relating to her native Door County, Wis., and Addison County.
Nienow won’t miss the administrative aspects of teaching.
“I’m done with the report cards and assessments; I just want to be with the kids,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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