BRATTLEBORO — Teri Appel, a member of the Brattleboro Union High School English department since 1988, started teaching at the age of 5.
"My kindergarten teacher, inundated with almost 50 students (Baby Boomers — apparently the school didn't see that coming), utilized every volunteer mom she could, while the school looked for an additional teacher," Appel said via email. "When she discovered I could read, she gave me a reading group to keep busy.
"Every day," Appel continued, "I would choose a book and `read' it to half a dozen classmates. What I couldn't read, I'd make up."
Despite this early experience, Appel didn't start out to become a teacher. Pre-med at the University of Michigan was her original intention, she said, but then she bumped into upper levels of math. At that point, she began to reconsider.
"I said, `Well, what else interests me?' and the answer was words. And that was that. I never considered teaching anything but English, speech, and theater because I knew I wanted to work with the power of words," she said.
The world of education was part of her growing up.
"My dad was a school superintendent," she said, "so we lived in a number of places (in Michigan) as he moved to larger and larger districts."
Attending the University of Michigan seemed a natural next step after high school.
"I'd been going to football games there from the time I was very young," she said. "I don't believe I even knew there was a university attached to the stadium until I was about 10 years old. Being in Ann Arbor just felt like home."
Appel said her first year of teaching was at an inner-city school in Flint, Michigan. Reductions in staff took her to the Davison schools, in a suburb of Flint, where she stayed for 10-and-a-half more years. It was her husband's work that brought her to Brattleboro in 1986. She started subbing in the district.
"In the spring of 1987, I was hired as a permanent sub in the BUHS social studies department," she said. "The next year I joined the English department."
As of June 19, 2020, Appel has retired from the classroom.
The move to remote learning in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, has been a challenge.
"The value of daily real-time contact is inestimable," she said. "Nothing can be more helpful in creating a nurturing a community of learners. I've missed that. And I saw signs of that lack in students: less enthusiasm, less organization. Without the daily face-to-face time, it's harder to keep a sense of community going. And it's the community of learners which is critical to keeping students engaged.
"On the other hand," she continued, "the abrupt departure from the classroom in March has been helpful in letting go of this career I've loved. Just as we `practice teach' before we take our first job, this has felt like `practice retirement.' "
In one way, however, remote teaching is similar to being in the classroom, Appel said. "Trying to find the hook," she said, "the means to engage a student, has always been a challenge. It's no different, even after all these years."
Looking back over her time at BUHS, Appel said no specific highlights stand out.
"I've been asked this frequently as I near the end of my career," she said, "and I can't think of one. I've decided that's as it should be. If I've been doing this correctly, then every `highlight' should be superseded by the next one. If I'm not discovering new wonderful moments each term, I shouldn't have been teaching. I needed that encouragement, that challenge to me to create something better than before to offer students.
"What I love about teaching," she continued, "is the element of surprise — anything can happen in the classroom (most of it good). I love the moment of discovery, where a student understands the power of words, that words can be our greatest tool, or our greatest weapon. Those moments of discovery have been a constant. I've been lucky."
While BUHS doesn't necessarily come to mind when one thinks of traditional diversity, Appel said, it does offer a variety of viewpoints, which is one of its strengths.
"Whatever our experiences are," she said, "we (students and teachers alike) bring them to the community of learners we try to create in a classroom. When those viewpoints come together, and students can hear things that are different than they might believe, then a real education begins."
As for her non-teaching interests, Appel has always put her family first, then gardening (especially roses), reading, and cooking. Her plans for retirement are in the development stage.
"First, take time to remind myself who I am away from the classroom," she said. "When I reclaim that version of me, I'll see what lies ahead — volunteer work? writing?"
For those considering a career in teaching, Appel has the following advice.
"Be prepared to be challenged," she said, "and meet the challenge by being prepared. This isn't something you can improvise. You need plans, plans, and more plans. The organization pays off."
What has kept Appel going are the possibilities of every day, a chance to learn from students, a chance to enjoy their "Aha" moments.
"I have loved being part of the BUHS world," she said. "In spite of the unending grading and prepping, and the hours of meetings, and the frustrations that come from dealing with people in every workplace, it's been a remarkable 33 years."
Nancy A. Olson was a member of the BUHS English department from 1978 to 2013.