This article first appeared in the June 26, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
POMFRET — Students buckled their seatbelts and put up their tray tables for their flight to Hawaii that took off from the Pomfret Elementary School gymnasium last Friday.
Principal Tom McKone wore sunglasses and a tropical T-shirt and welcomed everyone as the Governor of Hawaii.
“We’re here to honor one of the very distinguished passengers that you have on your flight today,” he said, before inviting Jean Souter to the front of the room.
Souter, a teacher known for taking students on imaginary trips to other cultures, will retire at the end of this year.
Throughout her 24 years at the school, she’s encouraged imagination and wonder. Souter started teaching partly because of her love to play. She starts each day with a dance and a sing-along to songs like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to get students motivated and to help them transition to the school.
Every couple years, students take an imaginary trip to Hawaii to learn about landforms and build volcanoes.
“Everyday is different and there’s a lot of creativity,” she said.
Her students celebrate every birthday and every holiday. They celebrate 100 days of the school year with a marshmallow treats and sometimes they get covered in goo.
When School Board chair Greg Greene visited the school in 1998, Souter had finished making a batch of Play-Doh and “something had obviously gone very wrong,” he said.
“There was no panic in her voice, no concern that her Play-Doh recipe had failed, no concern that that every kid…had green goo all over them. For Jean, it was just another day in kindergarten,” he said.
Souter is part of the reason Greene’s family moved to Pomfret. She brought fun and energy and laid a foundation for the rest of student’s school years.
“She was a fixture here,” said Tom Gubbins, whose three kids had Souter as a teacher.
“She was kind of a kid herself,” said Gubbins’ wife, Jennifer adding: “It won’t be the same.”
Souter spent her first year teaching in Pomfret at a one-room schoolhouse at the Pomfret Town Hall while the current school was being built.
“It’s just really been like a second home,” Souter said.
During the flight, students and faculty also made a stop to visit the Queen of England (para-educator Donna Hay, who is also retiring).
Hay had a cape wrapped around her shoulders and a plastic crown on her head. She held baby George (a plastic doll) in her lap and a cup of tea in her hands. Hay was dressed up just like she used to for the five and six year olds at the school when they were learning about different cultures.
Souter and Hay worked together this past year for the kindergarten and first grade classes. Fellow teachers referred to them as the “dynamic duo.”
Barb Leonard, a second and third grade teacher, had worked with both of them for nearly 20 years. Her classroom is in the same end of the building as Souter’s room.
“We’ve kind of been the nurturing grandmas now,” said Leonard.
The teachers have shared comic relief and have formed camaraderie.
“It’s kind of like I’m going to be here alone now,” Leonard said, choking back tears. “There’s a lot to miss.”
Leonard planned the ceremony with other staff.
“Without the two of them, in my world, it’s going to be a big loss,” Leonard said.
Souter held a box of tissues in her lap for part of the ceremony. She wore a green hula skirt and a lei.
Fourth grade students performed a poem, calling Souter the “Queen of K-1.” The fifth and sixth grade speakchorus recalled catching frogs and tadpoles and dancing.
“She always did fun stuff,” said Gaben Schain, 9, at the end of the ceremony.
At the end of every school year, Souter invites her class to her house to swim and kayak in her pond and eat lunch, complete with popsicles.
“I don’t even think you could begin to replace her,” said parent Jennifer Kirkman.
Her favorite time of year is the beginning of the school year, when she’s getting ready for a new group of students and the kids are nervous. There’s an opportunity to create a learning environment.
“You just have this opportunity to create an environment that is positive,” she said.
“I’ll miss the kids,” Souter said. “It’s such a small school that we all know each other — we all take care of each other.”
|Jean Souter wears a lei and holds a cup of tea during her retirement ceremony at the Pomfret Elementary School gymnasium last Friday. Souter has taught at the school for 24 years.
Katy Savage Photo