Retiring Vt. Principal Hailed

  • ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 2-3 - In this Friday, May 25, 2018 photo, Jim Taffel, principal at the Barre City Elementary School in Barre, Vt., wishes students a good weekend after school. Taffel is retiring in June after 45 years. (Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/The Times Argus via AP)

The Times Argus
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Barre, Vt. — If you want to know the kind of advice Principal James Taffel has been providing Barre schoolchildren for the past 45 years, you could always ask him. Or, you could look at the chalked-up sidewalk outside Barre City Elementary and Middle School because the answer is there, too.

At least for now.

Like Taffel, the chalk will soon be gone — proof we live in a world where time marches in one direction and nothing lasts forever.

Except maybe good advice: The kind that chalk-wielding students recently wrote on the sidewalk that sits between the school and the bus loop. Three concrete squares, side by side and front and center, sum it up in large letters:

“Be NICE.”

“Be KIND!”

“Dream BIG.”

So, for the moment, reads the sidewalk that is part of Taffel’s domain until school lets out for the summer in four weeks and he calls it a career.

The sidewalk is where Taffel has been greeting students with broad smiles every day since the city shuttered its neighborhood schools and opened the big new one in 1995. It’s also where he spends a portion of each school day afternoon making sure those same students — some of whom are children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of students he’s had before them — climb safely board their buses with the feeling they’ll be missed.

It isn’t an act.

Teachers will tell you Taffel knows every student’s name and the veteran principal will sheepishly confess he knows “most” of them.

“My goal is to know all of them,” he says, noting that’s no small task at a pre-K to grade 8 school with more than 900 students.

Committing names to memory and actually getting to know children and their families is important to Taffel.

“Every single one of those kids matters so much and they need to know that,” says Taffel, who has made it his mission to “raise the aspirations of children and families,” and to “make school a happy place” for children.

“If they’re happy at school it will make it a fertile environment for their curiosity to be nurtured and to blossom,” Taffel explains. “I want them to be excited about learning and discovery. ... I want school to be a place they want to come.”

Generations of Barre students, including some staff members Taffel once taught, say he has consistently checked that box and marvel at how little he has changed since he was hired to teach fourth grade at North Barre School in 1973.

Taffel would eventually be promoted to teaching principal and then just plain principal during his time at North Barre. When the city’s new centralized school was built he was picked to run the elementary school program.

It was an easy decision, according to then-superintendent Lyman Amsden.

“He rose to the top,” Amsden says.

“All he wanted to do was make kids’ lives better,” he adds. “You can’t teach that.”

Ask Taffel about his hiring, which was the product of a competitive process in a district that employed four other elementary school principals at the time, and he’ll talk about David Batchelder, who was hired to run the middle school program and worked with him for a dozen years before retiring in 2007.

“A wonderful human being,” Taffel says of Batchelder. “Honest, trustworthy, responsible, present . A great guy.”

Taffel is a master of tooting everyone else’s horn and actually noticing the reasons to toot them.

Here’s an example.

February is “I Love to Read Month,” and for as many Februarys as anyone — Taffel included — can remember he’s been dressing up as different storybook characters and reading to the school’s youngest children.

It wasn’t for show; it was to hook them on books. But when you ask Taffel about the much-loved tradition, he’ll tell you about Debbie Stevens.

Stevens is the seamstress and former parent behind the “basement full of costumes” — characters from Winnie-the-Pooh and the Yertle the Turtle to the Cat in the Hat and Clifford the Big Red Dog — that Taffel has worn off and on over the years.

“(Stevens) had always wished she could help out in school, but her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to do that, so she offered to make me costumes of story characters because she knew I liked to read to the kids,” he explains. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

It is the sort of deft conversational detour that is one of Taffel’s trademark, every bit as much as his daily “welcome-to-school-see-you-tomorrow” ritual and the clipboard he has constantly carried since Barre City Elementary and Middle School opened its doors 23 years ago.

Shifting to the centralized school meant being responsible for many more people, students and teachers alike.

Rather than risk forgetting concerns that required follow-up he began jotting them down throughout the day.

“It was just my way of keeping track,” says Taffel.

Taffel, 68, doesn’t sound like someone who is ready to retire — until he does.

“I love the work. I love the community. It’s so embedded in who I am. It’s my life,” he says, before adding: “It’s time.”

With a growing number of grandchildren that don’t live nearby, a son with an intriguing educational project he’d like to help with, and a wife he wants to spend more time with, Taffel says he is looking forward to focusing on his family.

“It’s her time,” he says of his wife, Patti, before correcting himself in Taffel-esque fashion.

“It’s ‘our’ time,” he says, noting that “words matter” and he tries hard to pick the right ones.

That thoughtful consideration has endeared Taffel to a staff he describes as “second-to-none” and considers “family.”

Second-grade teacher Heather Stalling, who was hired by Taffel when he was at North Barre School in 1986 and has worked under him all but one year since, described him as both “an inspiration” and an advocate.

“Nothing can compare to him being your boss,” she says. “He’s just a good, good, good, good person.”