Bridge School teacher Sharon Pinsonneault turns the page
MIDDLEBURY — “My son Matthew attended school here for three years. And he graduated from here,” said Sharon Pinsonneault in a classroom at Bridge School in Middlebury last week. “Coming here, he learned on his own schedule, and that made him feel comfortable.”
Pinsonneault, who has been teaching at Bridge School for 28 years, specializes in making the independent grade school’s pupils feel comfortable.
“I’m responsible for making sure all of their educational things are in order,” she explained. “If there’s a behavioral problem, or something that they do exceptionally well in another class, the teacher talks to me about it. I’m the one who does all the discipline and saying ‘Cynthia said that in math you just did an amazing job today on regrouping,’ or something like that.”
Before joining Bridge School full-time in 1987, the Orwell resident served part-time at Bridge School while studying to be a teacher and raising three boys. But, after three decades in the classroom, Pinsonneault, 65, is retiring. Her last day was June 5.
She had mixed feelings as her final school year came to a close.
“It’s a wonderful community,” Pinsonneault said of Bridge School early last week. “The parents are all friends with each other and friends with the staff. It’s just a lovely, lovely place to be.”
Stepping into Pinsonneault’s classroom will induce a wave of nostalgia in anyone who has forgotten what it was like to be in grade school. The walls of the multi-age classroom are stocked with toys of all sorts, some more millennial-oriented, and some classic childhood favorites: tubular towers in which marbles roll through lengthy mazes, pink clad doll strollers carrying pretend children and, perhaps Pinsonneault’s favorite, customizable gears that, in concert, form simple machines.
The room is spacious, with a great deal of free floor space for dancing and creating music.
“I’ve been teaching folk dancing,” Pinsonneault said one day last week. At first, she admits, she didn’t really want to dance. But then, once she got in step, she changed her mind.
“I just watched the kids, and they were laughing, and had all the steps. They knew the whole dance. I didn’t even need to call it out,” she said. “They were all having so much fun.”
Creating music with the children sounds like something reserved for only the older kids; but Pinsonneault created her own color-coded music sheets to teach even the youngest of wound-up kindergartners how to create a harmonious concert using hand bells.
She pointed to a purple colored quarter note that introduced the song.
“G is always purple, and the purple is always one bell. So I’ll hand out orange to one kid, gray to another, and purple to another. And I’ll conduct,” she says, gesturing with an imaginary baton.
“If you have kids that are a little more rascally and wiggly, give them a bell that plays a lot,” she said. “They’ll never miss it because they’re so active.”
Speaking of active kids, how does a teacher keep her sanity for 28 years among the hustle and bustle of dozens of grade school children? Well, by adhering to a few key axioms that keep the professional always professional.
“Sometimes, you just have to say ‘no.’ Love them while you’re saying no, and love them while you’re saying yes,” she said.
“Oh, it’s hard,” she said, “but I remember when my children were little, I used to think of a way of saying ‘no’ by saying ‘yes.’”
If a child asks, “Can I go outdoors,” and you would rather they not, simply suggest, “Well, why don’t you play in the bathtub, instead.”
Another survival rule for the busy teacher: “A lot of people say you have to have a lot of patience. And you don’t. Sometimes that’s not always good for the kids to have a lot of patience.
“A lot of people think that teachers have … an endless supply of patience, but I think that how you handle things when you’re at the end of your patience is the difference.”
Micki Paddock, the school’s receptionist and bookkeeper, noted Pinsonneault’s natural knack for teaching:
“Something that has always impressed me is her ability to be absolutely straightforward with children in her observations and questions,” Paddock said.
“This can result in some comical moments, but children generally respond in kind to her honesty and openness,” Paddock said. “Sharon believes in and is a practitioner of working with kids in a completely kind and non-judgmental manner.”
Physical science is Pinsonneault’s favorite subject to teach and the experiments that implement the use of, or have the result of creating, fire are especially all the rage among the children.
“I had so much fun, and the kids had so much fun learning those things,” she said.
“A favorite (class) was one called ‘Fire and Ice,’ where they would mix hydrogen peroxide and yeast, and then you take a coffee stick, those wooden ones, light it, blow it out, and put the stick into the bottle. And the fire would reignite,” she recalled, explaining that the reaction between hydrogen peroxide and yeast creates a byproduct of excess oxygen.
And she wasn’t kidding when she said that this one was a favorite, recognizing the pedagogical importance of igniting a child’s imagination.
“When they love an experiment, they’ll do it as many times as they want,” she said. “Eventually, they’ll know why it worked. But they’ll also remember that it was fun and it was interesting.”
Pinsonneault said Bridge School was a good fit for her. She felt that its small size allowed staff to give her son the attention he needed to learn and grow despite his struggles with ADD.
Her post-retirement plans? Pinsonneault said she will be spending time with her husband, Tom, also a retired teacher. While they will stay close to home this summer, the couple foresees some travel in their future.
“Oh, yeah,” Sharon Pinsonneault said, nodding her head and smiling. “We have a ’97 Miata that we’re gonna take for a few overnight trips here and there. When it’s a nice day, we’ll just say, ‘Let’s just jump in the car and go somewhere today and stay overnight.’”
Those longer trips, which Pinsonneault will take after the summer, are no walks in the park, at least figuratively speaking. She will, however, walk in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks.
After 28 years, Pinsonneault is going to miss it all, and she says the loss will be especially keen when the start of another school year rolls around at the end of the summer.
“We’ll probably have to plan a trip the first week of school because I’ll just be crying all day,” she said.
In any case, don’t expect Sharon Pinsonneault to sit still.
“I’ve already said, ‘Oh, maybe I can come back and teach a dance class, or a hand bells class,’” she said.
“My husband did that. He retired after 31 years, and took a year where he tutored kids, and then he went right back to teaching half-time,” she said, laughing at the thought that she might do the same.
Joseph Brown, a junior at UVM, is a summer intern at the Independent.
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