Retiring teacher named Employer of the Year
BRATTLEBORO — Karen Sebastian, head of the Modern and Classical Languages Department at Brattleboro Union High School, who is retiring this year after teaching French and German at the school for 36 years, is one of three winners of this year's Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Madlyn Moore Employee of the Year Award; the other two are Becky Peloso, a special educator at Green Street School in Brattleboro, and Jo Carol Ratti, the principal at Dummerston School.
Allison Cram, who teaches art at BUHS, nominated Sebastian for the award. In her letter of nomination, Cram quoted a student.
"Mrs. Sebastian has always encouraged me to challenge myself in the classroom," the student wrote. "She teaches in such an amiable and patient way that it's easy for us to learn new content in class. It's really incredible to look back at how much I've learned in German class with her in the last four years and to think about how much fun I had in the process."
Sebastian grew up in Orono, Maine, and earned her undergraduate degree in French and German at the University of Maine in Orono. She was teaching at the small high school there when she saw an ad for a job teaching French at BUHS.
"Someone sent me a tiny little ad, and I thought it was just posting the job because you have to post the job pro forma, but I decided to jump in the car and check it out — and I'm glad I did," she said in a recent interview. "Everybody was so welcoming, and there were so many opportunities. I got a tour through the maze of the building, and a welcome postcard from the department when I got the job. I was torn about leaving my students in Maine, but it was nice to teach in a bigger department with lots of opportunities for travel abroad and colleagueship."
While finishing her Master's degree in French at Middlebury College, she immediately began taking advantage of those opportunities, co-leading the BUHS Swiss Exchange for French students. Then when Hanne Steinmeyer retired after teaching German for many years at BUHS, Sebastian took over as the German teacher. Her students wanted to know why they didn't travel — so Sebastian instituted an exchange for them with a school in Leipzig, Germany. Currently, students of French, Spanish and German can participate in biannual exchanges, always with a homestay as the focus. Hundreds of BUHS students have taken part in homestay programs over 40 years. Sebastian sees student travel as an integral part of the language program at the school.
"We prepare them in our curriculum to travel abroad to use their language — and we prepare them for travel in general," she said. "We talk about life in the homestay, how to move efficiently through an airport and use public transportation in a city setting; we talk about different education systems — all the students visit schools in their host communities, and they also visit cultural and historic sites they've studied in class.
"Everybody in the class benefits from what we do to prepare students for eventual travel abroad," she continued. "We encourage students to travel in the not-so-far future — it may be possible for them to travel in college or after college — to seize any opportunity. It's really amazing to watch students transform before your eyes when they travel. Students are able to use their language outside the classroom in real-life situations; it becomes real and meaningful, and many of them make lifelong connections with their homestay partners."
Sebastian noted that the BUHS language curriculum already aligns with a state-mandated focus on proficiency and transferable skills.
"When we moved to block scheduling, we reorganized our curriculum according to national standards, and we focused on creating a curriculum where students demonstrated what they could do, not just fill-in-the-blank or seat-time," she recalled. "So for us, in our department, moving to a proficiency model has been a relatively easy transition. As Kurt Johnson [the newly named head of the language department] says, languages are the ultimate transferable skill."
While serving as a department head has challenges, Sebastian said she enjoys most aspects of her job.
"I like working with such a variety of colleagues with so many skills and interests, and also I like teaching," she commented. "I like the fact that you can watch students progress and evolve, especially in a proficiency model, and I feel fortunate that I've had students for several semesters — they stay with German — and I can get to know them better."
Challenges come from managing lots of demands in limited time.
"It's a challenge sometimes having to juggle department-head responsibilities with teaching responsibilities — prioritizing, dealing with spur-of the moment situations — especially since I'm a planner, so making split-second decisions can be hard," she said.
She would encourage young people to consider a teaching career.
"Every day is different. Every day goes by quickly — it's never boring," she commented.
"Teaching language allows you to be creative. One is always changing the approach or strategies to fit the situation or the students.
"Stick with it — don't get discouraged. Meet the students where they are and bring them along, and bring the fun when you can," she continued. "As a department, for the past five years we've taken a department field trip to Boston. Each teacher customizes the cultural or language experience for his or her students."
In retirement, Sebastian will continue her involvement with the BUHS German Exchange. She is looking forward to traveling more, both to places she's never been in Europe, the U.S., and Canada, and to Graz, Austria, where she is planning for a reunion with people she met in a summer immersion program in 1974.
"We want to hike from hut to hut in the Alps in the late spring or early summer of 2020," she said.
She expressed gratitude to the BUHS community for its unwavering support for the language program.
"Thanks to my colleagues throughout the year, the administration and the board, for all the support and opportunity," she said. "I am very glad I found Brattleboro."
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