Gym classes more than fun and games: PE teacher Paquette retiring after 40 years

CORNWALL — Fran Paquette has a favorite saying:
“A ‘Thank you’ goes a long way.”
And when the final bell rings this June to signal summer vacation for the Addison Central Supervisory Union elementary schools, Paquette will have earned a hearty “thank you,” having capped 40 years teaching physical education to generations of Middlebury-area students.
“You can have a bad week and wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and one kid comes up and says, ‘Thanks, Mr. Paquette, I could never do that before, and now I can.’ I tell you, that gets you through a couple more weeks, because you know you hit it with somebody.”
A lifelong Middlebury resident, Paquette began his teaching career in 1976, soon after graduating from the University of Vermont with a degree in physical education. He is a son of Lucien Paquette, a pioneer of Addison County Fair and Field Days.
“I wanted to stay in Vermont,” Fran Paquette recalled of his wish to stay grounded in the Green Mountain State.
So he applied for positions at several Vermont high schools, hoping to start off teaching older kids.
But his best offer ended up coming from the Addison Central Supervisory Union, to instruct grade school-age children.
“After I got into the elementary (setting), I was glad that’s where I was,” Paquette said. “I didn’t want to change to high school.”
He began by teaching physical education in five of the ACSU’s seven elementary schools, spending one day per week in the Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge schools. The ACSU would later pare him back to just the Cornwall, Shoreham and Weybridge schools, each twice per week. He also coached the Middlebury Union High School  freshman football team for 30 years, ending his run around seven years ago.
“That made it a lot easier for me,” Paquette said of the reduced coaching responsibilities and smaller territory he now has to cover.
Paquette has found the younger children, in general, to have been more receptive to the exercise regimen he prescribes during his fun-filled classes.
“It’s the awe — when they see something different, the expression on their faces is the key thing that keeps me going,” Paquette said with a smile. “Their eyes light up. They are excited about what they are doing, and they feel good.”
Of course the kids don’t like everything. They’d much prefer to play tag than run around a circuit. But Paquette is pleased with how receptive the younger kids have been to directions aimed at making them healthier and more inquisitive.
And at age 65, Paquette is still keen on learning a thing or two from his younger protégés.
“I will tell the kids, ‘If we get through a whole class and you haven’t had anything in it that you liked, let me know, and we’ll make a change next time so there is something that everyone enjoys doing,’” Paquette said. “That’s the first key in getting them to listen and follow directions. They have to like what they’re doing, realize the purpose, and like what they’re doing.”
The kids’ favorite activity, years ago, was dodge ball (using a Nerf ball), according to Paquette. But the sport has fallen out of favor due to the perception of bullying, in terms of several kids targeting one player.
“I still feel there are ways of setting that up so (bullying) does not happen,” Paquette said of dodge ball.
These days, the students’ preferred gym activities include floor hockey, basketball and capture the flag.
Paquette has always given the students a lot of leeway in structuring their team sports, in terms of setting up the offense and defense. Paquette has set the guidelines in which the students must operate, guidelines designed to maximize positive interaction between the players and, of course, good sportsmanship. These are attributes that he knows will serve the children well throughout their adult lives.
“We do a lot of cooperative activities,” he said. “I like to see the problem solving.”
Invariably, the students learn that haste makes waste, and the team does much better if the players cooperate.
A prime example of this cooperation can be seen in a game of “Earth ball.” This involves students working together to roll a huge ball to a designated spot.
“I like every class to have something where they work with a partner part of the time, or work in a group part of the time,” Paquette said.
He plans his classes knowing that not every child is athletically gifted.
“One of the main things is to help get these kids in shape,” Paquette said. “If you’re not a team person and you’re not going to play a team sport, you’ve got to have alternatives. I really emphasize respect, sportsmanship and cooperation. We will talk every class about what’s working, what we can do differently and how to react to a situation.”
It’s quite common after a game of floor hockey for Paquette to sit the students down and ask each one to identify something good that a competitor did during the match.
“Instead of me saying things they need to work on, they are coming out first with a positive,” said Paquette, who also asks players what they think their team could have done better.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Physical education is involved in a lot more than your games; you have to work together and get along with people,’” he said. “You need to show respect for people and listen.”
Paquette’s students have come to realize that it’s OK to make a mistake, because mistakes provide opportunities to learn.
“If you think something is hard and you just sit back and say, ‘I can’t do it,’ you have to try and do the best you can,” Paquette said. “I say ‘I would like everyone to be able to do this,’ but they are not all going to be able to do it.”
And Paquette knows that at his age, there are some athletic moves that his body won’t let him do anymore, moves that his students might perform easily. He doesn’t force the issue with students who are unable to perform all of the class exercises.
“If you are honest with them, it lets them know that they can be honest, too,” Paquette said.
Paquette has also found it rewarding to work with students who might be struggling in the classroom, but can excel at athletics. He’ll ask for one of those students to help him out with a younger class, which can in turn give that student more self-confidence to apply more effort to academics.
“They feel good, the younger kids feel good and look up to them,” Paquette said. “They feel like they are achieving something.”
Several children in Paquette’s class are the offspring of former students, as are some of his teaching colleagues and former Shoreham Elementary School Principal Heather Best.
But after 40 years, Paquette has had enough. He’s still a very good teacher, but he wants to spend more time with his spouse, Lorraine, who has had some health setbacks.
“I want to make sure my wife and I have time to spend together and do a few things,” he said. “We have grandkids, so it would be nice to follow them.”
Fran and Lorraine have four grown children and five grandchildren.
The Paquettes are avid gardeners, raising a variety of vegetables on their property in Cornwall.
“I can see staying busy for fall, spring and summer,” Paquette said of his gardening activities. “Winter scares me, and my wife even more, because she has to put up with me.”
He doesn’t have to think long to know what he’ll miss most about teaching.
“I’m going to miss the smiles, listening to them having fun playing, enjoying what they’re doing,” Paquette said. “I’ll miss seeing them working with other individuals in a cooperative manner, knowing that maybe I helped them to be able to do that. I feel so thankful for parents to allow me to have the opportunity to work with their kids.”
Being surrounded by kids has been somewhat of a fountain of youth.
“It makes you feel younger,” he said of teaching young children. “That’s what I’m afraid of, when I’m away from that, I might get old in no time.”

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