BRISTOL — After 39 years educating students — eight years in Enosburg Falls as assistant principal, guidance counselor and psychology teacher followed by 31 at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School teaching a range of history and humanities classes — Jim Ross will retire this month.
The teacher who helped start girls’ soccer teams at both Enosburg and Mount Abe and has seen students dedicate their yearbooks to him five times is scheduled to give his fifth and likely final graduation speech on Saturday at the class of 2011’s request.
Ross, 62, said the years spent educating generations of children have not been easy, but they’ve been rewarding.
“I would say I’ve had the best experiences of my life teaching and the worst experiences of my life teaching,” he said. “It’s a really challenging occupation, but if you want to make the world a better place, you do it one kid at a time. That’s why I consider my career to have been an honor. The most precious treasure we have is our children, and to have people entrust their kids to you … what greater gift is there?”
The Addison County native’s family lineage in the region stretches back to his great-grandfather Patrick Mulligan — an Irish explorer and Civil War soldier, buried in the old Middlebury cemetery — who in 1850 came to Vermont from Quebec.
Inspired by an eighth-grade teacher in Middlebury, Ross decided at a young age that he wanted to be a history teacher. When he and his wife, Linda, moved back to Addison County in the early ’80s, he jumped at an opportunity to teach history at Mount Abe, where he was a student teacher in 1969 — the first full year that the school was open.
“Classroom teaching is a very honorable and genuine part of education,” said Ross. “It’s the heart and soul of what we do.”
CHANGES IN THE SCHOOLS
Throughout Ross’s 31 years at Mount Abe, he’s witnessed a wide range of changes in technology, teaching styles and student behavior. One thing that he’s especially emphatic about is that education today is much more difficult than when he went to school.
“The kids that are graduating here on Saturday … have gone through a more challenging (course) than what I may have (gone through) when I was an undergraduate in college,” he said. “The game has really been upped over the years. I’m proud of the kids.”
One of the big game-changers has been the rapid development of technology over the past 30 years.
“Everything is electronic,” said Ross. Teaching tools, communication methods, research sources and ways of measuring students’ progress have all been digitized. As the students’ ability to produce higher-quality work has been enhanced by the introduction of computers and other modern tools, academic expectations have risen too. But this traditional Vermonter, who mandates that all of his students address him with a respectful “Mr.” before his surname, has no qualms about the advent of modern technology.
“It allows your creativity to have substance,” he said. “You come up with an idea and you can make it happen right in front of the kids. You have to know the material well in order to know what to ask for, but the opportunities are pretty stunning.”
Another change that he noted is the hefty support network that now exists for students with special needs. He recalled that when the special education act went into effect in the mid-1970s, his superintendent at the time scoffed at the policy, discounting it as a fleeting notion.
“But it hasn’t gone away, it has transformed our schools,” Ross said. “In all of my classes I have instructional aids that are working with me to help individual kids who have special needs. So, (these kids) are integrated into the classroom but are accommodated more so that they can be successful.”
Another marked transformation that Ross has witnessed is the transition from teaching primarily content to teaching mainly analysis. With answers at the tip of the modern student’s fingers, there’s not as large an emphasis placed on memorizing content. Ross is a strong proponent of enhancing students’ analytical abilities, but he feels that a certain level of fixed knowledge is important too.
“For many of us history teachers, we’re of a mind that you have to have a certain baseline vocabulary in history before you can reach a critical point where things begin to connect,” he said. “I hope we never get so far that we completely disregard the idea of a knowledge base.”
As far as what kinds of students show up at his classroom these days, he’s also got some insight.
“Their computer skills are spectacular … but the kids have changed. I don’t want to say they’re smarter, but they’re more worldly and they have a bigger information base.”
But it is a mixed bag.
“The other thing is that kids today just aren’t taught a lot of manners,” said Ross.
Ross goes outside the classroom to make learning more fun for some students. He is a French and Indian War re-enactor and he brings that to Mount Abe, where he and others regularly pitch camp and host living history demonstrations for the students.
Ross built a small log cabin reproduction at Mount Abe with students in 1991, and students use it to learn old-fashioned building techniques to repair the cabin.
Ross holds his current students in the utmost esteem and has worked hard to provide them with a top-notch education.
“He expects a lot from his students and always creates ways to help the kids come through and get it done,” said long-time friend and colleague Alan Blaise, who retired from teaching in 2004 after a 31-year run at Mount Abe. “(Ross) is a very fair, creative teacher who cares a lot about his students. He does many innovative things like historical reenactments and uses new technology to help students learn. He’s just one of those teachers that students always hope to get.”
Ross will kick back as usual this summer, and in the fall he is going to take some time off to enjoy the outdoors.
“But come the cold weather, I’ve got to find something to do,” he said. “So, I may be back in education whether I try to teach a course at (Community College of Vermont) or volunteer.”
One thing he won’t be doing in the future is regretting a day of his teaching career.
“I feel so good about what I’ve done. It’s given meaning to my life and I’m proud that I’ve been a good teacher. I get the affirmation continuously,” he said. “I probably could have done a lot of things, but I think what I chose to do with my profession has made a difference and that’s pretty cool. What I have to do is ... be able to walk away next week.”
Andrew Stein is at [email protected]