Preschoolers kept Deborah Angier young during 33-year career at ANwSU

VERGENNES — Thirty-three years ago, then Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Gail Link offered Deborah Angier a yearlong substitute teaching position in the district’s preschool, then operating in the Bixby Library basement on Main Street, Vergennes.
Angier, a Randolph native whose family had moved to Vergennes when she was a fourth-grader, had recently earned her degree in elementary education from Trinity College in Burlington, but was considering other options based on her love of the French language.
“My first thought for a job was to be an interpreter at the Canadian border. Fortunately, that didn’t stick,” said Angier, one of her many remarks punctuated by a laugh during an interview last week.
Angier, now 61, talked Link’s offer over with her husband, Phil, with whom she has celebrated 36 anniversaries.
“I can remember Phil saying to me, ‘This is either going to make you crazy, or keep you young,’” Angier said.
It turned out the latter condition prevailed.
“I said I’ll try it, it’s just for a year,” said Angier, who will soon retire after those 33 years. “And I’ve never left. I absolutely loved it.”
After a couple years in the Bixby, the ANwSU district preschool moved to a modular home off the back right corner of Vergennes Union Elementary School. For many years, Angier has directed what eventually became a combination of the Early Essential Education and Early Compensatory Education programs.
Her abilities and inclinations proved to be a perfect match. Angier, who now lives just down the road in Panton, called it fate.
“There was no light bulb that went off. It just happened,” Angier said. “I just loved it. It just felt like a fit. And that’s where I wanted to be.”
Possibly only in retrospect does her career seem meant to be. Angier laughs about her own academic background. At Vergennes Union High School she said she was a straight-A student, but said school bored her and that she frustrated many of her teachers.
But looking back, she believes the experience prepared her for her profession.
“I was probably one of the least desirable students to have in your class all the way through elementary school and high school,” Angier said. “I didn’t like the structure and being told what to do. I skipped school, all those things. But having been one of the worst students, those are the kids that I gravitate toward, the tough ones. Because I just have an affinity for them. I understand them. And we, 98 percent of them, usually end up very good friends.”
There were exceptions among the VUHS faculty: She cites French teacher Ellen Norton and calculus teacher Merle Crown.
“Those two challenged me. They expected more from me, and I had great respect for them,” Angier said.
Angier was asked if she modeled her own teaching after Norton and Crown; she hadn’t really considered the question, but agreed she probably had.
“Their demeanor was always calm and accepting, but there was little piece of them that said you will do this to the best of your ability. Yeah, I guess you would say that, that I do treat my kiddos like that,” she said.
Her college career had fits and starts as well. After leaving midway through her first year at Johnson State due to what she called a lack of focus and maturity, she returned to earn a year-and-a-half of credits at Burlington College before Phil helped her finish her bachelor’s degree at Trinity.
“My husband would drive me back and forth to night classes and I did it,” she said. “Then I had two babies and went back and got my master’s (in early childhood special education at the University of Vermont).”
By that time, Angier was committed to her career, one that again might seem inevitable looking back: Both parents and one grandparent were educators, and she was completely comfortable in the preschool classroom.
“I just love kids, and I felt like I could make a difference,” she said. “They’re curious. They’re like little sponges. They’re excited. They love learning. And it’s just a matter of guiding them in appropriate directions. They’re just wonderful.”
Not seeing the children every day will be the hardest part of Angier’s retirement.
“One of the most important things for me is to make a connection with each and every child,” she said. “At the preschool level it’s almost like you’re extending your own family. It’s like home away from home. It’s like they’re all my kids. And that’s why I just love it. You’re going to make me cry now.”
Her job has become increasingly difficult over the years. What was once an 18-page set of regulations recently grew to 123 pages, with some requirements Angier believes are unrealistic, such as the insistence of storing three gallons of water per student onsite in case of emergency, and impossible to follow.
But, again laughing, Angier noted she has stayed out of trouble with the new regs.
“I have yet to be written up for anything horrendous,” she said.
On a more serious note, societal changes have been felt in her preschool. Children are in harm’s way when there is a heroin and opioid epidemic.
“I see a lot of drugs, drug abuse in families,” Angier said.
For example, she said, “When I first started I had twelve 4-and 5-year-olds, and I could set up three stations in the classroom by myself. They would come in and rotate through the stations independently. You can’t do that any more. A lot of the kids have some pretty severe emotional and behavioral difficulties, and they need a one-to-one adult helping them through the day.”
Neurological problems are more prevalent, Angier said.
“When I started, a child might have some trouble with fine motor writing because he had never done it, or a speech language delay for no apparent reason. It just happens,” she said. “And now we’re seeing a lot more nebulous delays, like hand tremors, disregulation — they just cannot control their behavior. They just cannot control their bodies.”
On a positive note, Angier said thanks to collaborative efforts of administrators, colleagues and the Vermont Department for Children and Families, many kids and families have been helped.
“It’s been so positive and so progressive that we can actually wrap services around some of these families and really make a difference,” she said.
Angier also heaps praise on her administrators and colleagues for all their efforts, and said she will miss them as well as the kids. But she won’t miss pushing papers — the increase of which helped her decide to move on and spend more time with her two grandchildren and travel around the country with Phil.
“This year, to be perfectly honest, the paperwork is killing me. I’m out of the classroom more than I’m in the classroom now,” she said.
She also expects to hear often from ANwSU Director of Student Support Services and Early Childhood Education Kara Griswold about subbing in the preschool — teaching, not filling out forms.
“It’s going to be hard, but I’m only eight minutes away, and Kara, my administrator, said she will have me on speed dial. … I’m not cutting ties completely.”
In fact, Angier has plans that go even past retirement.
“In my next life I want to be a developmental neurologist,” Angier said. “The development of the brain absolutely fascinates me, and I know I’ve barely touched the surface through all my training. I think if we could understand brain development more we could intervene with these kids earlier. So that’s my next life.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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