Douglas devotes four decades to Ferrisburgh kids

FERRISBURGH — As retiring Ferrisburgh Central School educator Kathy Douglas tells it, she always knew she wanted to teach.
The native of Addison who grew up on her parents’ dairy farm recalled the first of what she said were many jobs centered on children.
“My first job was babysitting at the age of 12 for a teacher that had four boys, and I made 25 cents an hour,” said Douglas, who will wrap up a 42-year career at FCS on Tuesday.
There was a moment of clarity along the way. The member of the first Vergennes Union High School graduating class remembers volunteering for her church school.
“I helped the nuns with a religion class,” said Douglas, now 73. “Sister Ursula was fantastic with the kids. So I knew definitely that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a teacher. Working with the kids was what I wanted.”
Launching that career proved to be challenging. After World War II, other family members took over the farm, and Douglas’ family, including four siblings, moved to Burlington, Waterbury and back to Burlington before returning to the Vergennes area when she was ready for eighth grade.
After VUHS, Douglas attended Trinity College in Burlington for two years. But money was tight, and she dropped out and went to work for the former First National Supermarket in downtown Vergennes.
Then she caught a break. Her Vergennes priest had moved to Burlington, and asked her to teach third grade at St. Anthony’s School there. She did so for two years.
“Father knew that I loved kids and had taught religion class,” she said. She gained valuable experience, if not financial reward.
“It was a poor section of town,” she said. “I made $2,000 a year and probably spent it all on the kids.”
She then married Clifford Douglas (in later years they divorced, but not before raising three children). He joined the Navy, they moved to Virginia Beach, and she taught religious school for four years.
When they returned to the Vergennes area, Douglas said former Vergennes Superintendent David Potter made her an offer: If she obtained her teaching degree, she would have a job.  
She attended the University of Vermont for two years, while her parents took care of her young children.
“It was hard having two children at home and having to take all these courses. But it was worth it,” Douglas said.
The offer was made for a job in Vergennes, but the opening came at FCS. Douglas said Potter told her she could take a job in Vergennes later.
But plans changed.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Douglas said. “I love this school and I love this community.” 
Douglas has spent most of her time teaching fifth- and sixth-graders, most recently specializing in history and social studies as the school has shifted to rotating educators to teach their specialties to the two higher grade levels.
But she started out in a third-grade classroom, and has taught fourth-grade and combined third- and fourth-grade classes. She now has a sixth-grade homeroom.
“They’ve managed to move me around to most of the rooms, because they would look in the closet and say, ‘Time to move you. Time to clean out,’” Douglas said.
Thirty-eight years ago, she started taking classes on an overnight Social Studies/History trip to Canada, an event that has remained an annual spring fixture since and is now a two-night visit. A centerpiece has been a stop at Upper Canada Village, a recreation of an 1860s village.
Students keep journals and then scrapbook their experiences, and Douglas said they also learn how to behave in public — she said FCS is the only group of students allowed to eat in the main dining room of the motel that hosts them each spring.
She also introduced FCS to Vermont History Day, and FCS students have done well in that competition, which includes research, dioramas (Douglas visits students at home to help prepare them) and oral presentations. Douglas also recruited VUHS teacher Cookie Steponaitis to start the Vermont History Day program at the middle- and high-school levels, and it has succeeded there as well.
Both the Canada trip and Vermont History Day program will continue, Douglas said, and she will stay involved with history day at both levels.
“I said to her (Steponaitis) why don’t you let me do the exhibits, because she’s good at performances and doing the papers. She’s fantastic. So let me do the exhibit boards with the kids,” Douglas said.
Some of the changes in education have frustrated Douglas in what she sees as her central mission. That goal was informed by an incident she recalled from her student days at VUHS — she and a classmate were forced to the blackboard to do a math problem they did not understand.
“I will never forget that. And I thought, when I’m a teacher, I have to remember this with kids, to be listening, supporting, and if they can’t get it, find another way to help them,” she said. “That’s when I realized that if I’m going to be a teacher, I’ve got to be there for the kids.”
Now, Douglas sees more students struggling due to economic and other demands on families. 
“Kids need our support so much now. They really do. You’re not just teaching them how to learn academics. It’s how to learn in life, simple little things,” Douglas said. “These are great kids. They are awesome. But they don’t have the respect. They don’t have the knowledge of how to be polite, pretty much all the social skills.”
At the same time, state and federal mandates for more testing are creating demands on teachers’ time that she believes would be better spent with children.
“Even today I had someone come in and say, ‘How are you coming with those reading assessments?’” Douglas said. “I haven’t done a one this afternoon. My intentions were to try to get through one, but I had kids that were trying to get some work done, and they needed help. So what do you do? Do you say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you because I’ve got to do this assessment?’ No.”
Still, she believes FCS has done well by its students.
“I know this is a good school,” she said. “Every principal I’ve had here is here for the kids.”
For the past decade, Douglas has served as a caregiver for her parents in Vergennes, not far from her own Main Street home. Her father died about seven years ago, and her mother in May 2014. She missed a lot of time in the 2013-2014 school year, and had considered retiring before then.
But she wanted a year she could devote to her students. Unfortunately, the plan did not work so well. A broken foot caused her to miss a month this past fall, and two illnesses cost her time later in the year.
Meanwhile, the first tough times passing FCS budgets arrived. She didn’t want to see a new teacher lose a job if she stayed on.
“When I see some of the younger teachers coming in now, and they’re great, and when they talk about possibly having to cut back teachers here, I didn’t want to see that happen,” Douglas said.
Ultimately, she put the interest of the students first.
“I finally said this spring this is probably it,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of myself, and I can’t keep missing because of the kids. It’s not fair to the kids.”
All that logic doesn’t make it an easy decision, though.
“I hate to leave teaching. I really do. I’m going to miss it terribly. I can’t even think about it right now, to be honest with you,” Douglas said.
Some things will help. She will spend a day a week caring for two of her grandchildren, in Vergennes, a newborn girl and her older brother, and four more are not far off, two in Burlington and two in Barre.
And Douglas will be showing up at FCS every now and then.
“I might sub once in a while. But I am going to continue with the Canadian trip and history day,” Douglas said. “So I’ll be in to see the kids.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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