Veteran educator Suzy Way to explore new horizons after retiring from Monkton Central
MONKTON — Retiring Monkton Central School teacher Suzy Way is planning big adventures in the coming years, including travel to places like Egypt, Morocco, England, Brazil and Germany. That same sense of adventure, enthusiasm for broader horizons and eagerness to learn about new things and new places lights up in her eyes when she talks about her students.
“They’re always eager to learn about the world,” said Way.
A combined first- and second-grade teacher at Monkton Central for the past 10 or so years, and a Monkton kindergarten teacher for most of the decade before that, Way has spent most of her 40-plus years teaching kindergarten through grade two. She loves these early grades. She loves the capabilities these young learners bring to the classroom, their joy in learning, and their willingness to form a community and support each other.
Way landed her first job soon after earning her bachelor’s in elementary education at the University of Florida. Married to an Englishman, she moved to England and began teaching kindergarten at a private school. Way laughs, remembering the contrast between her somewhat hippyish younger self, circa 1972, and the Miss Marple-like women who ran the small elite school.
“That was a really interesting job. Challenging. I was new, trying to find my way and fit in with what they expected,” she said.
From England, Way returned to Florida where she landed another kindergarten job — and took on a completely different kind of challenge. Way ran a Head Start preschool centered in an African American church, in a community hit hard by racism and lacking in economic opportunity.
“Talk about opposites. I was in this little church basement in a black church in a black section of town with extreme poverty,” said Way. “I loved those kids and those parents. They were so kind to me and they trusted me and they would talk to me. And the discrimination back then in the South in the ’70s — it was terrible.
“It was very rewarding,” she said of the experience.
From Florida, Way moved to Ripton and began teaching kindergarten at the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, a position she held for 20 years, before coming to Monkton Central School in 1995. Along the way, she also picked up a master’s in education from the University of Vermont and has continued to log additional hours in classes, workshops and trainings.
One day last week, Way’s class, along with their third- and fourth-grade big buddies, voted on how to spend the money they’d raised doing extra chores and donating their allowances to purchase animals for families in need around the world through Heifer International.
“We bought a pig, a sheep and an assorted basket of geese, chickens and ducks,” said Way. “We did a lot of background research about the program. We watched some videos. We read some books. And I find that they have such kind hearts when it comes to other kids and how little other families have around the world compared to what we all have and how generous they are. I find that very touching.”
Among Way’s and her students’ favorite units have been their studies of China and Australia. Way got interested in teaching about China from traveling there with a group of teachers through UVM. And she says the kids love the stories and artifacts she brought back.
“At the end of the year when we’re reminiscing, they talk about wanting to go, these young kids they say, ‘Oh yeah, I really want to go to China.’ They’re eager to get out there. It opens the world to them.”
In China, Way especially loved seeing out-of-the way places as far out as the borders with Myanmar and Tibet. She also appreciated the deep respect for education ingrained in the culture.
“Teachers are held in high regard. They want their children to have education. They were anxious if they could speak a little English to talk with us,” said Way. “There’s such a fear of China for so many reasons but when you’re there you really see these people with families who want their children to have the things we want. It was just wonderful. So I was happy to share that with kids because they eat this stuff up.”
Much closer to home — in fact, just outside the school’s front door — Way says students equally love digging in the dirt to plant the school garden.
“And then our wonderful cooks use what we grow for school lunches, and the kids eat it,” she said. “They love it. They’ve written poetry about the garden. They’ve done art projects. Digging potatoes — it really inspired them to write!
Way has also enjoyed the ingenuity her budding scientists have brought to their units on technology, whether it was the years in which they’ve built vehicles of the future out of recycled materials or this year’s new unit on engineering.
“We built a class structure, and it was all out of recycled materials. All kinds of stuff — straws, socks, plastic. We learned the principles of engineering and we talked about, what kind of base would you have? What kind of connectors should we use? So they did all these experiments and then they also did a drawing and built their own structure out of recycled things and they invented new things of the future.”
Alongside their intellectual curiosity, Way is equally enthused about the courage and creativity her young students have shown in the Monkton Central talent show.
“They were nervous and they got up and they were spectacular and everyone’s respectful no matter what their talent is. The applause was like thunderous applause for everyone,” said Way.
Students must audition to be in the talent show, said Way. So they have to plan and practice before they put themselves on the line. A second-grade girl from Way’s class wrote and performed her own song. A first-grade boy got up and sang “Memories” from the musical “Cats,” and one boy danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” complete with costume.
After 20 years at Monkton Central School, Way declares flat out that it’s “just my favorite place to work, truly, that I’ve ever been. These little schools are just real gems. We don’t necessarily always have the resources that bigger schools in Burlington might have, perhaps, but there’s a lot of sharing and a lot of creative ideas.”
Way has especially loved the collaborative nature of teaching and the chance to work closely with so many of her colleagues. “It’s a collaborative effort. I have enormous respect for my colleagues here at Monkton Central School. They’re educated and dedicated and creative. I’ve found that any time I needed help or support people were willing to help me, and I love that atmosphere because it is a demanding, challenging job. And the more people involved the better.”
Way continued, “Education is really, really important and worth the money we put into it so that we can offer all these services and supports. I feel like with young children there is a payoff to our society and taking care of problems now and supporting them I think it does lead to fewer dropouts and fewer issues with drugs and unemployment and all of those big issues in our world, our communities, and in our country. This is the place to do it.”
Asked what she most likes about first- and second-graders, Way considered.
“Young kids often have surprised me at what they’re capable of doing,” she responded. “I’m not sure everyone knows how capable they are and how proud of themselves they are when they feel competent. That sense of being more independent and thinking of themselves as readers and writers and mathematicians and scientists is a huge boost and just being independent in a lot of things.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]
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