MONTPELIER – Union Elementary School just won't be the same next year.
With the final bell on Friday, three long-term teachers will say goodbye to their last day of class and their last class of students, and then head into retirement.
"All three of them are exceptional teachers, and so much of what they do is part of what Union is," Principal Sue Boyer said of Newton Baker, Elizabeth Sabens and Bev Keck. "They're kind of taking a little bit of Union away with them when they retire."
Baker, Sabens and Keck have a combined 81 years in the Montpelier public schools. In that time, Keck has worked under five principals, Sabens has taught four different grade levels, and Baker has created many writing projects.
Baker, who was born in Brattleboro and served three years in the Peace Corps, has taught at Union, Main Street Middle School and the old Barre Street school for a combined 35 years. His father was a teacher, influencing Baker and four of his six siblings to follow in his profession.
"It's something I wanted to do. I like kids, I like learning," Baker said. "Once I started, that's where I stayed. I'm not interested in administration."
Baker, whom many know as an avid marathoner and runner, has also been a leader in getting children to write, from his "hubcap poetry" to creating booklets filled with student poetry which his classes hand out to the tourists who descend on the capital city.
The hubcap poetry is meant to inspire students to write verse about even ordinary things, and students use brightly painted hubcaps as props when they recite poetry for audiences.
Of his many favorite memories from teaching for so long, Baker recalls his one-year stint at then Middlesex Village School – the a grades five-through-eight school. There he was assigned to teach gym because he was the only one of four teachers who was athletic (today, at 63, he's ranked number nine in the country for his ultra long-distance running ability).
"Early on, I remember they said, 'you're the gym teacher,' and I said, 'what equipment do we have?' They said 'a basketball,' but we didn't have a basket."
So Baker got his hands on a soccer ball, and he and the kids constructed goal posts. The kids were so into soccer, they went out in the winter, and packed down the snow so they could play. When the fifth-grade boys stole the ball, the eighth-graders held a trial, he said.
"It was sort of hands-on education, created as you go, for lack of money and resources," he said. "The kids were great and that taught me a lot about (how) you can create and make-do with the stuff you have and the kids get so involved."
"It's going to take us a long time to replace his influence," Principal Boyer said.
Baker wants to stay involved in promoting writing programs in schools.
Sabens herself went through Montpelier schools, graduating from Montpelier High School. It was her experience there that sparked her inspiration to become a teacher.
"Some of the teachers at Montpelier High were an inspiration for me," Sabens said. Her teaching career has taken her from Waterbury to Williamsburg, Va., while she was doing graduate school work, to East Montpelier and back to Montpelier, where now she teaches a combined first- and second-grade class. Now, Sabens' youngest child is graduating from high school, leaving her with an empty nest and a chance to make a life change. Though she knows she's sticking around the area, Sabens said she's not quite sure what she'll do as a retiree. She's been too busy wrapping up the end of the year to worry about the future.
"I don't really know yet," she said. "I'm really excited to go to new adventures, but I'll also miss the people and the kids."
"Elizabeth (organizes) reader's theater," Boyer said, where students "read a book and do a little play about the book they read." The students get props and costumes and invite other classrooms, she said.
Bev Keck, who has taught at Union for 28 years, is looking forward to spending time with her son, his wife and their children, who are moving to Vermont from Idaho. With the young ones around, Keck said she plans on "being a teacher in a different way."
"My retirement surprised me as much as it did anybody else," Keck said, who said she hadn't been contemplating the change for too long. "It was kind of a last-minute decision." With her son moving here, and her husband retiring, it seemed like a good time to retire.
Nearly 30 years is a long time to rack up memories.
"I have so many," Keck said. "I really haven't sat and reflected about that. (Some) are just my students and watching them grow up, and coming back into the classrooms as helpers" through community-based learning programs. As the math coordinator for 18 years at the school, Keck had a chance to work with both remedial and gifted students, which she really loved, she said.
While a lot has changed throughout her time there, one thing that sticks out is the level of parents' involvement in their children's learning.
"I think they're much more involved, in a supportive way. Parents are the most important teachers of children," Keck said. "It's just so wonderful to have them in the classrooms now, working in a supportive way through the arts, through funding things, for extra activities and extra materials. The parents are just encouraging and caring." She described teaching kindergarten as her "dream job."
"Bev is the science leader, and she is big on hands-on science," said Boyer. "I've seen kids in her class carrying around containers of bugs and eggs or some kind of emerging animal or insect."
New teachers have been hired to replace the three who are outgoing, Boyer said. Though the newcomers seem wonderful, Boyer said, the veterans are "going to be really hard to replace. They'll be very much missed."
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