Education News

Perry-Askew centered students at MUMS

MIDDLEBURY UNION MIDDLE School teacher Janelle Perry-Askew is capping a 29-year career, during which she inspired a new generation of students to embrace science.
Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Janelle Perry-Askew’s career has followed her heart, which — in addition to her family — belongs to science.

She’s found joy and fulfillment teaching the subject to Middlebury Union Middle School students for the past 29 years. But she’s got other passions to pursue during her golden years, including travel, so she’ll be retiring when the final bell signals summer break next month.

Perry-Askew, a fifth-generation Vermonter hailing from Brattleboro, will leave with fond memories and the satisfaction of having given a new generation of children a better understanding of what makes things tick.

“I love to figure out how things work and why they do the things that they do,” she said during a recent interview in her classroom, which is plastered with science-related diagrams, posters and charts.

 “I love sharing (science) with kids, hopefully making them curious and wanting to investigate things,” Perry-Askew added. “I might not reach everybody, because not everybody loves science, but at least I’m giving them foundational information so that when they get into the high school … they’ll have a good background.”

While she’s come to love teaching, it wasn’t what she had in mind when she went to college. After earning a degree in biology from the University of Tampa, she hit the job market without a firm gameplan — just youth, enthusiasm and a passion for science.

“I thought I was going to do sports medicine, but I didn’t really have a clear thought of what I wanted to do. All I knew is I wanted to do something science-related,” she said.

Perry-Askew actually began her professional life as a dental assistant, and then graduated to oral-surgeon assistant. But she yearned for a career more rooted in the study the physical and natural world and wanted to share her knowledge with others.

“I thought, ‘Why not teach?’” she decided.

She returned to school (Trinity College in Burlington) to earn a bachelor’s in education, eventually solidifying her credentials with a master’s in education from the University of Vermont.

Her first interview was for a middle school science teaching vacancy at MUMS in 1995. She was thrilled to land the job, and the rest is history — and scientific fact. Perry-Askew relished the freedom she was given to guide her charges through the journey of how things work the way they do, and why.

She liked the middle school demographic and the notion of giving students a solid science foundation she hoped would serve them well as lifelong learners.

“When you teach middle school, you don’t have to focus on one specific subject area in science; you can teach all of the different areas and see how everything is connected,” Perry-Askew said. “I love that, and I love sharing that with kids, because nothing exists in isolation. Everything’s connected.”

IN A NEW BUILDING

When she started her job, the district’s middle schoolers were still based at Middlebury Union High School off Charles Avenue. By the late 1990s, they had moved to their own middle school building off Middle Road. There’s an artificial wetland behind the school, which has served as an onsite science lab for portions of the MUMS science curriculum. The school’s proximity to the Trail Around Middlebury — a rustic path leading through woods and past streams — has also given students a convenient window on the natural world.

In the beginning, Perry-Askew created her own science curriculum, which was eventually fortified by textbooks, library resources and hands-on science experiments. Technology has since increased by leaps and bounds; her students now have Chromebooks to access a wealth of scientific data and videos to inform their learning.

Climate change figures prominently in each science unit through middle school — particularly for 8th-graders, she noted. And Perry-Askew has sought to not only ensure students understand global warming and its causes, but also how to fight it.

For example, “unit two” in the MUMS science curriculum is titled “energy in waves.”

“We look at is the impact science has on solutions to things,” she said. “We look at how to improve energy efficiency in homes, such as insulation, heat pumps, windows. We learn about how those things work in the home, how it can save money, but also that when you’re not using as much energy, you’re putting less greenhouse gases into the environment.”

Perry-Askew knows some of her students don’t share her affinity for science and have no plans to make it part of their career plans. That’s OK, but she reinforces the benefits of having a well-rounded base of knowledge.

“I tell them, ‘You may not be interested in this, but soak up everything, because you never know what doors of opportunity are going to open,’” she said. “I want to give them a foundation, so they can be good citizens when they leave here and be able to make good decisions about the world they live in when they graduate.”

Teachers, Perry-Askew has always believed, should be more than mere conduits of information. They can also be designers, guides, managers and influencers.

“We play a lot of different parts, along with just being there for them,” she said. “As a teacher, I believe the most important thing is the relationship with the kids. You’ve got to create a great relationship, and from there, the kids will become more engaged in doing what you’re asking them to do.”

Speaking of kids, Perry-Askew is very proud of her two daughters. Her youngest, Maryn, is about to graduate from McGill University and plans to become an astrophysicist. Her oldest, Elise, is teaching English in South Korea. Part of her reason for retiring is so she can spend more time with them and her husband, John Askew.

She also wants to travel, citing Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Costa Rica as destinations to check off her bucket list.

MUMS Principal Michaela Wisell said Perry-Askew has been a big asset to the school community.

“In her time here, she has instilled a love for science inquiry and curiosity in all of the students she’s worked with,” Wisell said. “Janelle is an incredibly supportive colleague who brings a wealth of institutional knowledge that helps emerging teachers become better prepared to meet the needs of their students. Additionally, she has a keen understanding of school-based systems that help us to reflect on our practices and refine our future work. Janelle will be greatly missed here at MUMS in the years ahead, however we are so excited for her to enjoy the retirement that she so deserves.”

What does Perry-Askew consider to be her biggest reward for teaching? Knowing she’s inspired students. She was particularly thrilled to have received a recent email from a student she had 25 years ago, who told her that her teachings had inspired him to become an architect.

“I was floored by that,” she said with a beaming smile. “(Teachers) always want to inspire somebody.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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