VUHS social studies teacher Pam Taylor reflects on 43 years in front of the classroom

VERGENNES — A teacher inside a one-room Ira schoolhouse who taught eight grades within its walls sparked one of its 1964 graduates to follow in her footsteps.
Fifty-three years later, the past 43 of those spent teaching social studies and some English classes at Vergennes Union High School, that former Ira Central School student — Pam Taylor — is ready to step away and spend more time reading, painting, playing music, relaxing in her North Ferrisburgh home, and traveling.
“I really love what I’m doing, but I’m going to be 67 in August,” Taylor said in a recent interview.
“I want to be able to have some time to do the things I want to do and have not had the time and energy to do. I love to paint. I love to do music. I love keyboarding; I want to get back into that. I want to relax and travel. And I’ve been restricted for time for traveling. It feels right for me.”
It’s not that it was an easy decision for Taylor to leave a workplace and career that she has enjoyed since 1974 — and moved almost all the way across the country to begin.
“I love it here,” Taylor said. “I love the school, the community. I could have gone to different places, but I didn’t want to.”
As Taylor tells it, she knew early on in her native Ira, a tiny town southwest of Rutland, what she wanted to do when she grew up. Ira Central School contained no more than two-dozen students at any one time, she said, and older students helped teacher Harriet Kenyon tutor younger pupils.
Taylor described it as what modern educators would call an open classroom, and said “amazing things” were accomplished under Kenyon’s guidance.
“When we reached 5th grade, 6th grade, we would start working with the 1st-graders,” she said. “So I remember teaching since I was a little kid, and I just loved it. I just loved talking with the kids, working with the kids.”
Taylor described Kenyon.
“She was just an incredible teacher in reading,” she said. “She taught spelling, phonetics. By the time we got out of 8th grade we were reading at a college level.”
As well as offer a variety of music, craft and community projects, Kenyon gave Taylor the freedom to expand her reading selections, even to James Bond novels.
“I would read everything,” Taylor said. “I would bring in the latest Ian Fleming book, open up my (school) book and be reading my latest paperback. She must have known, but she never said anything.”
Taylor’s family was not well off, but they made do, she said.
“We didn’t feel poor because we always had enough to eat,” she said. “My dad had a job, and we got a dollar each so we could go square dancing every Saturday night.”
But her father died when she was 16, a tough blow financially as well as emotionally. She went to Castleton State College for a year on a scholarship that paid the $250 per semester cost, but then the family moved to Burlington when her mother got a job at the University of Vermont. Taylor transferred to UVM, and without a scholarship she worked to put herself through school, a retail job for her first year and then two years at Kentucky Fried Chicken at $1.25 an hour.
“I was taking 18 credits a semester, but I was also working 3 to 10 every night and weekends 12 to 10,” she said. “You have to be young.”
Then her family moved to Arizona, where Taylor earned a graduate degree at Northern Arizona University, again working at KFC to pay the freight. She married, but it didn’t work out.   
“I got to the point where I wanted to come back home,” she said. “And I wanted to teach … and I couldn’t get a job in Arizona.”
Taylor contacted her sister back in Vermont and got a list of “all of the superintendents in the state.” Vergennes Superintendent David Potter called, and in the fall of 1974 she replaced Greg Clark, who had moved to Mount Abraham.
“I got hired over the phone,” she said. “I was so broke I borrowed 100 bucks from my mother-in-law at the time and took a bus back.”
She was a cancer patient at the time, but recovered and was declared clean five years later.
She taught 8th-grade social studies for 11 years with an occasional high school class, then moved to high school social studies with an occasional English class if VUHS needed to take advantage of her dual certification.
“It’s a nice variety,” she said.
Taylor said there has been plenty of joy in her 43 years on Monkton Road. In 1990, the year her niece, then Jennifer Chicoine, graduated, the seniors dedicated the yearbook to her. “That was super special,” Taylor said, adding she also appreciated her peers once voting her VUHS Teacher of the Year.
But she said connections with students are what she remembers most fondly, citing for example not only seniors thanking her at graduation but also former students returning to say they are grateful.
“When kids come up and say to you honestly, thank you, and give you a hug, for me that’s where it’s at,” she said. “It’s not accolades or any of that stuff.”
And those moments where things click for students are priceless.
“One of the joys of teaching is when that light goes on, and they just light up, and they see something and they talk about it,” Taylor said.
Trips with former German teacher Joy Minz and former social studies teacher Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis were also high points.
“Joy and I went on a trip to Russia and Ukraine with kids and we had just a blast. And Cookie and I took kids for 10 or 11 years to D.C. and points beyond, and it’s so much fun because they get to see me as a human being. It’s so different than teaching them,” she said. “We talk about things, but they just absorb it.”
It’s not that there haven’t been challenges.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work, and I don’t think people understand that with teaching. My day doesn’t end at 3 o’clock. It doesn’t begin at 8 o’clock. Summers were always curriculum work. I’ve always had to work different jobs to make it on a teacher’s salary,” Taylor said. “I don’t think teaching is as respected a profession as it should be. I think my colleagues do an amazing job. Teachers do an amazing job. It’s not easy.”
Sometimes keeping up with the latest education fads has been frustrating.
“Education has so many trends and cycles,” Taylor said. “You get one initiative and work very hard on it, and then something else will come along.”
That said, she had embraced the ongoing VUHS move to proficiency-based education, which increasingly both requires students to participate in designing their education and in demonstrating mastery of material and skills to earn their diplomas.
“I like the idea of kids being accountable for what they’re learning. I like kids being able to advocate for their learning,” Taylor said.
As much as Taylor says she is still enjoying her work, there remains that list of things she would like to do for herself. She said she had “another pre-cancer scare” a few years back, and wants to have unrestricted time to enjoy life.
“I just want to do what I feel like doing without the restrictions of a clock,” she said. “I’ve worked my whole life. I’m looking forward to it.”
Taylor plans to be become even more of a fixture at the library, and will continue reading everything from autobiographies to mass-market bestsellers.
“I go to the library and drive them crazy,” she said. “I read and read and read, and I encourage kids to read all the time.”
On the other hand, Taylor said she while she is looking forward to “a new chapter,” she also plans to put her name on the substitute teaching list.
And she has a central message she wants to leave for her students.
“I say to the kids if you ever learn anything from me it’s to learn to accept people for who they are,” Taylor said. “If you learn that lesson, I’m very happy.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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