Saturday July 6, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When Nancy Olson began her teaching career in 1978, she was certified in both elementary education and English. She thought she would probably work with young children, but she was offered a part-time job teaching English at Brattleboro Union High School and has been there ever since.

"I figured, ‘Oh, well, I'll try it for a year,'" she said in a recent interview.

Olson has just retired after 35 years of teaching and nine years as head of the English Department at BUHS. She decided to apply for that job to help her colleagues navigate changes in education at all levels from local to national.

"With the changes in education policy on the national level, such as No Child Left Behind, and the repetitive testing those changes required, I thought that my long experience at the school could provide a continuity that was helpful to the students and the department," she said. "I've always seen my purpose as smoothing out the challenges, whatever they might be, so that teachers in the department can use their energies with their students and not be distracted by things that I can deal with on their behalf. Their students need them."

In her own classes, she maintained a focus on the teaching of writing all through her career, after being selected in 1980 to participate in the Vermont Writing Program at the University of Vermont.

"It was a two-week course in the teaching of writing, taught by Donald M. Murray and Donald Graves, two leaders in helping teachers teach writing," she said. "I was in the program for three summers, and I was able to bring that approach to the department and the high school.

"It was an experience that changed my life both as a writer and a teacher," she said. "That program changed my teaching for the better -- it helped me understand that writing is a process and how to guide students through it in a way that helped them grow as writers."

Her commitment to fostering students' involvement with writing and literature took several forms. She served as advisor to the Dial, the BUHS literary magazine, for seven years, and in 1994, after working with the BUHS Board, she initiated the journalism program at the high school. As part of that program she founded Extempore, the student newspaper at the high school. She also fostered students' interest in poetry by organizing assemblies and contests.

"I'm very pleased to have established Poetry Out Loud, the national recitation contest for students, at BUHS," she commented. "It just had its fourth year, bringing poetry more actively into the life of BUHS."

She traced her interest in writing to her sixth-grade teacher, who read aloud to the class a Halloween story that Olson was writing -- "I was literally finishing up the ending, passing up the pages to her," Olson said.

"She said, ‘You're going to be a writer someday,'" Olson said.

In 1981, she wrote a review of the spring play at BUHS -- "Peter Pan," directed by Betty Greenhoe -- for the Reformer.

"I was so nervous that I was up until 4:30 writing it, and then I had to go to school the next day -- and that was the first writing I'd ever done for publication since my Halloween story," she said. "It was very exciting to see my words in print with a byline."

She has continued to write, though not always for publication.

"I started keeping a journal my first year of teaching, and now I'm on volume 37," she noted, "so it will be interesting to read those over and see how I've changed or not, though I think I have."

She said she was happy that her daughter was educated in the local public schools.

"I'm very pleased that she went to kindergarten though eighth grade at Putney Central and grades nine through twelve at BUHS," Olson said. "She's a teacher herself now, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. I felt it was very important for me as a teacher in the district to have my child educated in the district."

She herself is a tireless learner, earning one master's degree, in education, from the University of Vermont and another, in English, from Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College -- as well as two more certifications.

"I've gone to school just about every summer," she said. "I've earned certification as a School Library Media Specialist, and this past January I earned certification from Antioch University New England as a principal."

She is planning to take a "gap year" after retirement.

"I really loved teaching, and I can't imagine that I won't do something related, but I don't know what it is," she said. "Teaching is something that I learned to love and tried very hard to be good at. I've loved going to school myself, so teaching was a good fit. I'm sure I'll take courses of some kind down the road."

Olson said that the most rewarding part of her work was seeing students making connections.

"The most fun of teaching happens when students get it -- when they begin to understand how to make inferences in literature, for example, or when they understand style in writing and can use that in their own writing; when they develop a voice as writers, and my excitement about their development mirrors their own," she said. "That's magic.

"It took me a while to understand that for some kids I'm just not the right teacher at that time in their lives," Olson said. "For some kids, though, I'm absolutely the right teacher at that moment in their lives, and they walk away from that class changed in a good way. One of the unexpected pleasures of living in a place for a long time now, over 40 years, and teaching at the high school for 36 years, is watching kids grow up and become adults, then hearing from them that things they learned in my classroom made a difference in their lives -- and then having the honor of teaching their children."

Maggie Cassidy teaches French at Brattleboro Union High School.