Kids at heart of 117 years of classroom service: Trio of Beeman teachers to retire
NEW HAVEN — One hundred seventeen years of teacher power will say a fond goodbye when veterans Linda Kulhowvick, Margaret Benn and Arnell Paquette retire from Beeman Elementary School at the end of this school year.
Beeman Principal Kristine Evarts said each has brought unique strengths to their decades of service to New Haven’s children. She has especially appreciated their depth of commitment to kids, their willingness to push boundaries and think outside the box, and the ways that each has leavened that depth of knowledge and experience with a distinctive brand of humor.
“We’re really going to miss them,” Evarts said.
In 1973, when Kulhowvick interviewed for the kindergarten job at Beeman, a concerned board member asked how long she intended to stay. Two previous kindergarten teachers had breezed through Beeman, leaving after one-year stints, so longevity was a concern.
Forty-four years later Kulhowvick is still here, teaching kindergarten, in the same light-filled room, now chock full of nooks and crannies designed to draw in the shyest or most boisterous of kindergarteners. There’s a claw-foot tub full of pillows and a huggable bear, a blue boat — a real wooden boat — installed on its own platform as a nook for quiet work, a rug for circle time, shelves of games and toys, tubs of books, and an enticing view of the playground and the mountains to the east.
And, of course, there is children’s art from floor to ceiling.
“You have to love to come to school every day,” said Kulhowvick, summing up her philosophy of education.
Originally, she thought she wanted to teach second grade. A native of Massachusetts, she’d come to what was then the Vermont College in Montpelier to get a degree in education. A friend coaxed her into student teaching kindergarten, so they could better share their student teaching experiences.
And that was that.
“The moment I walked in, I knew that day there wasn’t any other grade I wanted to be in. I was very happy with that,” Kulhowvick said.
Kulhowvick said she loves the innocence of five-year-olds.
“They’re the perfect age: ready for school but sweet.”
She loves their exuberance. She loves their enthusiasm. She loves that they are just “loving beings.”
In some ways, kindergarten has changed a lot since Kulhowvick was first hired at Beeman fresh out of Norwich University with a bachelor’s in elementary education (and one of the first five women, and first civilians, to attend Norwich after its merger with Vermont College). Kindergarten is now full day, rather than half. The curriculum is far more academic, now covering much of what was previously the purview of first grade.
But five-year-olds are still five, said Kulhowvick. And today’s kindergarten teachers work hard to maintain the right balance.
“You want to make sure that they still feel happy, that they still feel motivated, that they still feel like they’re important and that they’re cared for, and at the same time there’s a lot of curriculum that needs to be covered,” she said.
Over the years, pets have added a special spice to the happiness factor in Kulhowvick’s classroom.
Kulhowvick married in 1974 (to Middlebury Union Middle School social studies teacher George Kulhowvick, who is still teaching). She got a toy poodle as a wedding present and brought “Tiffany” in one day for show and tell.
“The next day when I came into school, the janitor had built her this huge pen that you would have thought I had a German shepherd. It really was huge.”
Not just the janitor, but even the principal asked, “Where’s Tiffany?” So Tiffany got the green light to be a four-legged classroom “aide” and came to school for the next eight years.
“It was very special having her in the classroom. The children loved her, and she was kind of like the school mascot.”
Tiffany was especially helpful at snack time, said Kulhowvick. “You didn’t need a vacuum cleaner at all.”
After Tiffany retired, other pets came on board over the years: a little white mouse rescued from its destiny as a snake snack; “Teddy Bear” the hamster who escaped one week from the classroom and was found nesting in the school piano; a bunny named “Boston.”
Each helped make the classroom homey. Kulhowvick remembers one little girl who was so shy she would read out loud only to Boston.
Deciding to retire was not easy, said Kulhowvick. But one special incentive is to spend more time with her two grandsons, nearby. The oldest will be entering kindergarten at Neshobe School in Brandon this coming fall.
“I want to help out to be part of his experience,” Kulhowvick said.
“Teaching kindergarten is such an important role,” said Evarts. “It’s just huge. So that’s going to be a big one for everybody: She’s not going to be at the end of the hallway next year waiting for her new kids.”
As a teenager, Margaret Benn thought she wanted to be a midwife. But when she visited a hospital and witnessed someone in the throes of an epileptic seizure, she decided it was “not the place for me.” Undeterred, she thought she’d try teaching and soon discovered she’d found her life’s work.
“After I got to college and I began working with children, then I really discovered that was really the right place. Teaching for me has really been a calling. It really has. I love working with children. And I find it incredibly satisfying, rewarding, challenging,” said Benn.
For 32 years, Benn has been a part of the Addison Northeast school district. She was hired in 1985 to teach grades one and two at Monkton Central School. During 17 years there, she also pursued a Master’s in Education from the University of Vermont. That additional training propelled her to work in the central office for a number of years, doing curriculum development and being a teacher leader.
“I missed the kids,” said Benn.
So she moved to Beeman about eight years ago to be the school’s math and literacy intervention specialist.
“It’s a privilege to be there at the moment when a kid learns something,” said Benn. “It’s very powerful to be there at the point when a young child is learning to read for the first time. It’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding to try to make that happen.”
A native of Great Britain, Benn got her Bachelor’s in Education from Nottingham College. She came to the United States as part of a college study abroad program, met her future husband, and got married. After graduation, Benn joined him in Pennsylvania, where they lived and worked for a number of years.
Both had wanted to join the Peace Corps, said Benn, but it was difficult to find a program that would accept both a U.S. and a U.K. citizen. Finally, the couple pulled up stakes and simply traveled for seven months throughout Africa.
Those seven months changed her life, said Benn.
“That was the best educational experience of my life, just seeing how other people lived and seeing the poverty,” she said. “It really changed my value system too. We saw things there that we would never see here.”
Some of these memories are still vivid for Benn, like seeing kids as young as three or four having to sell things on the street, like watching three-year-olds guide their blind mothers through the market.
“They had a long stick like this and the three-year-old would guide the mother because people have river blindness there,” said Benn.
“When I got back I really looked at life in the U.S. differently. I just saw how materialistic it was here and how people had so much more than they needed in order to exist.”
Benn and her then-husband decided to relocate from Pennsylvania and toured New England, looking for the perfect spot. They chose Vermont and eventually settled in New Haven, where they raised their two children (who went to Beeman and Mount Abe).
When she took the Beeman job, said Benn, she did additional training in the Reading Recovery system out of Boston’s Lesley University.
“Margaret’s a great cheerleader as well as a great teacher,” said Evarts. “I’ll miss just her ability and gift to work with our kids that have the most challenges, her helping them to persevere and how she never gives up. She’ll bring a student in to read to me who’s finally made the next level of reading. And they’re so proud, and she’s so proud. The celebration she does with them is really nice.
“Not everybody can do that kind of work. It can be tough.”
While Benn said she has no definite plans yet for her retirement (“I’ll let it unfold,” she said), she does plan to come back and volunteer.
“I still want to be involved with kids and reading.”
As Principal Kristine Evarts describes her, 41-year Beeman veteran Arnell Paquette is something of a force of nature.
“Arnell likes to change it up. It’s never enough. It’s never the same,” said Evarts. “I can tell when she’s had enough of her room setup because all of a sudden the kids have got hammers and nails, and they’re moving furniture, and they’re looking for the power drill.”
The ability to face new challenges every day is part of what drew Paquette to teaching.
“It’s never boring. Every day’s a new day. There’s a lot of change,” said Paquette. “And at Beeman, I’ve been able to change whenever I needed to.”
A Bristol native who went to Bristol Elementary and graduated from Mount Abe in 1970, Paquette has taught at Beeman since 1976.
“I’ve done the gamut, from third up and in all combinations,” said Paquette. For the most part, she’s focused on teaching grades four, five and six, often in multiage classrooms, as in this year’s four/five/six assignment.
Paquette has also served as the school’s vice principal for more years than even Evarts is entirely sure of.
The desire for change has pushed Paquette to continue to get new degrees and certifications. She graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s in elementary education from Johnson State College. In the 1980s she obtained a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UVM.
“It was wanting to know, What is best practice? What do we need to do? What will make it better for the kids? What will make it easier for them?” said Paquette.
About eight years ago, she earned a certificate in school leadership and administration, also from UVM.
Paquette said she then considered becoming a principal or superintendent. But she realized her heart was in the classroom.
“I just decided I would miss the kids,” said Paquette.
“I love the kids, the individuals that they are and the coming together as a community. Even when it’s hard, it feels so good when it happens. And the multiage classroom is just so good for them becoming a community, a family. They all look out for each other. Everybody has a place.”
Paquette said the multiage format has been part of Beeman since the 1980s. While year to year variations in student numbers have played a part in Beeman’s classroom configurations, the multiage format has also been very much a part of the Beeman philosophy.
This year, for example, Beeman opted for three four/five/six classrooms, rather than reshaping those same numbers into traditional grade configurations.
Paquette said over the years, she’s seen a huge benefit to students from this approach. Each kid can learn at his or her own pace without being tied to the narrower band of age-mate expectations. A sixth-grader who’s slower in math, or a fourth-grader who’s faster don’t have to stick out. Younger kids can learn from older kids. And older kids can be leaders.
“That’s what makes the family feeling,” said Paquette.
Paquette has also loved the opportunities over the years — not always as possible now with the requirements embedded in the Common Core — to introduce schoolwide themes. One year, she went to Japan on a teaching scholarship. She came back with curriculum ideas that inspired a schoolwide study of Japan, including games, Kabuki theater performances, making sushi, and making kimonos. Another year, the whole school studied Africa, another year it was poetry.
She has especially liked the immigration units the school has done over the years, which have included setting up “Ellis Island” in the school gym. Two years ago, the immigration theme was keyed to the Syrian refugee crisis and the students’ work was incorporated into the naturalization ceremony hosted at Beeman.
Asked what she’ll do next, Paquette said: “I’m not done teaching yet. So I’m waiting to see.”
CONSTANTS AND CHANGES
All three teachers, when asked what changes they’ve seen over the years, noted the ways in which today’s kids are far more scheduled, far more wired to technology, less engaged with free play and less engaged with nature.
“We grew up and played on the mountain,” said Paquette, of her own Vermont childhood. “We would be gone all day long.”
Paquette observed that as most families have increasingly needed and wanted to have both parents in the workplace, there’s been less time for families to simply hang out together and less time for kids to just do whatever. This ratcheted-up pace, she said, can make it “hectic for families.” And with so much now needing to be scheduled for kids, she’s also seeing less perseverance in the classroom.
“It’s hard to engage them in many things — the stamina to stick with something or the curiosity to want to know about something. They don’t know what they want to know about,” Paquette said. “And often there’s not that ‘Well, I started this and I don’t have it yet but if I keep working at it I’ll get it.’ I think that’s missing because everything you do happens instantly now. Everything is instant gratification.
“Things need to be hard in order for you to learn. I tell them, ‘I don’t expect you to know everything. I wouldn’t have a job if you knew everything. But you need to work at it.’”
Ongoing societal changes, each observed, have yielded new benefits and new challenges for today’s kids, today’s families and today’s teachers.
Yet all three also noted one rock solid constant: the community’s commitment to its kids.
Said Kulhowvick: “Ever since I began teaching, this community has been very supportive … Our town hall is always packed when we have the concerts and the different things throughout the year. When we have open house, the walls are bursting with people. They find time to come in for their children.
“That’s another reason why I stayed in this school. It’s not just the building and the wonderful classroom, it’s the people as well. We have very supportive parents and a very supportive community that really cares about kids’ education.”
The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)
BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)
See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.