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Pandemic gives retiring Upper Valley educators a strange ending to long careers

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    Photographed in one of the school's greenhouses on his last day, teacher John Hiers, of Bridgewater Corners, Vt., is retiring from working at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., for 32 1/2 years and leading the horticulture program for 27 years. "It's been quite a wonderful career," he said. "It's gone by in the blink of an eye." Hiers will be spending more time with Trees and Seeds, a nonprofit he started two years ago for students’ service trips, and he hopes to stay involved with the school. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • At center, Rick Clavelle of Hartford’s Regional Resource Center guides the fourth wall of a tool shed into place with help from students on April 30, 2010, at the Lebanon Community Garden. Clavelle is retiring from teaching after 42 years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2020 9:48:03 PM
Modified: 6/13/2020 9:48:01 PM

After 32 years at Woodstock Union High School, John Hiers felt at home in his classroom and greenhouses.

But since mid-March, those familiar places have seemed hollow. This wasn’t how Hiers expected his teaching career to end.

“I might get a little choked up here as I talk about this,” Hiers, a longtime agriculture teacher, said in a phone interview Thursday. “It was very hard to have everyone suddenly disappear. ... It did come to tears a couple of times.”

Every spring, dozens of teachers retire from Upper Valley schools, many of them after long careers. This year is different. Teachers accustomed to seeing their students every day and working face to face and shoulder to shoulder with them have spent their last three months in the profession teaching via computer screen thanks to the novel coronavirus health crisis. It isn’t what they signed up for.

“I’m very concerned about this move into remote learning,” Christine “Chris” Rose, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Enfield Village School, said Friday, after her last day of school. Young children need in-person interaction for lessons about managing competition, friendship, sharing and other aspects of social and emotional development.

“Kids are tech-savvy,” Rose said. But, “that isn’t how they learn.”

In New Hampshire, state education officials are touting the success of remote learning for some students and saying that it could be part of the educational landscape indefinitely. Count Rose among the skeptics.

“If that’s the way we’re going to go, I really fear for our future,” she said. Children who are struggling with aspects of their growth will find less support if they spend more time out of school, where they have access to a full range of teachers, counselors and other professionals, she said.

Rose, a Windsor resident, has taught for 28 years in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District, 27 of them at Enfield Village School. In all, she taught for 43 years, all among 5-year-olds.

“I love kindergartners,” she said, citing “their absolute joy of learning.” “Everything’s new. ‘What are we going to learn today?’ ”

Hiers estimates that he’s taught 2,700 students since he took over the agriculture program when Arnold Howe retired in 1993. The program offers a range of courses in horticulture, forestry and advanced agricultural studies for middle and high school students. Hands-on subjects don’t translate well to the world of Zoom and Google Classroom.

“I did it,” Hiers said, “but I didn’t find it to be extremely effective.”

Although he missed his students during his last term, he was heartened to see what they were doing at home.

“Probably over 50% of my students shared photos of raised beds and working in the garden with their families,” said Hiers, who lives in Bridgewater.

Both Hiers and Rose said they plan to remain involved at their schools next year, Hiers in horticulture and Rose in Enfield Village School’s Four Winds nature program. Hiers is leaving teaching in part to run a nonprofit, Trees and Seeds, which leads student agricultural service trips similar to the 20 trips he led as a teacher.

Rick Clavelle, who taught special education students for 42 years in Hartford, also plans to remain involved with youth, though he’s not sure what form that will take.

For now, he wants to catch his breath, take some bicycle rides and play some music. The remote instruction experience has been exhausting.

“I love to work. I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve worked as hard in the last three months as I ever have.”

He hadn’t planned to retire, but he took this episode as a sign.

“I wouldn’t want to keep teaching in this format,” he said. “It’s really tough not having that person-to-person contact.”

Clavelle, who lives in Royalton, started as a special education paraprofessional in 1978 and became a special education teacher the following year. His career has spanned a sea change in how children with special needs are taught. When he was quite young, he worked at the Brandon Training School, where Vermont housed many children and adults with developmental disabilities.

“That was a learning experience, without a doubt,” he said.

At the time, educators were coming to the conclusion that the institutional approach wasn’t working. “They realized that these were people who didn’t need to be in institutions. They needed to be in their communities,” he said.

At around the same time, the state was creating regional hubs for vocational education and also created hubs for special education, including in Hartford. Clavelle taught in the Regional Resource Center, which is part of Hartford High School and accepts students from around the Upper Valley. It’s one of three regional special education programs in the Hartford School District. Hartford has been a supportive place to work, he said.

While technology has had an influence on education, Clavelle said he remained focused on the same goals.

“For me, it hasn’t changed, because it’s really about helping young people be as independent as they can and take care of themselves,” he said.

Hartford teachers rose to the challenge of remote learning, he said, holding countless classes and meeting with students online. The effort was inspiring, but the work wasn’t satisfying, Clavelle said.

“I never figured this is how I would leave the public school system,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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