BRISTOL — It’s almost impossible to imagine newly hired Mount Abraham Union High School Assistant Principal Justin Bouvier outside the halls of the school where he’s worked for over a decade and from which he graduated almost 20 years ago.
The 35-year-old Bristol native has built a career out of helping young people — especially those who struggle the most.
But what most teens roaming the halls of MAUHS might not realize is that Bouvier’s own path to success wasn’t always clear or certain.
When Bouvier graduated in 1999, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
College didn’t seem like the right option. So he took a clerical job and put in his time — filing, faxing, data processing.
An attack of appendicitis helped turn his life around.
“My appendix ruptured, and I was really, really sick in the hospital for a long time,” said Bouvier.
With all that time to think Bouvier got to asking himself, “When am I the happiest?” The answer: “When I was teaching kids.”
One particular moment stood out most clearly.
“I was reflecting on that moment in the pool when a kid learns to float. And I remember distinctly sitting in my hospital bed going, ‘What brings you joy?’ and it’s that moment of looking into that kid’s eyes when you let your hand drop from the back of their head and they’re floating by themselves and they know they are and it’s like sheer joy and jubilation that they’re experiencing in that one moment and knowing that I helped create that moment.”
A lifelong thespian, Bouvier also knew he loved the time he’d put working with kids on theater projects.
Newly inspired, Bouvier landed a job at Mount Abe middle school as a special education program assistant, or “paraeducator.”
Paras support special education students in the classroom, typically working one on one or with a small group of students. The job requires only a high school diploma.
Bouvier loved the work so much he stayed for six years.
But all that time, colleague mentors saw his talent as an educator and kept nudging him to move out of his comfort zone, go get a college degree and become a teacher. Chief among these friends and nudgers were English teacher Lori Centerbar and math teacher Janet Logan-Robnett.
“Every year Lori would have a conversation with me through tears and say, ‘Go get your degree,’” Bouvier recalled. “And I would say, ‘No. I’m just not cut out to be a teacher. I’m happy with the para work.’”
When Centerbar moved on to a job at another school and Bouvier was reassigned to the high school, Logan-Robnett took up the cry.
“Every day she would say, ‘Please, I am begging you. Get your teaching license.’
“She really pushed,” Bouvier said. “And finally in 2008, I left Mount Abe and went to Castleton.”
Initially, Bouvier pursued a theater degree and took math classes simply because he loved the subject and it was an easy credit.
Then the head of the Castleton math department tapped him to be a tutor in Castleton’s afterschool math program for grade schoolers.
“I fell completely in love. And I was like, ‘This is clearly what I want to do. I don’t want to be a para. I don’t want to go to Broadway. I want to work with kids.’ It was my aha! moment.”
Bouvier got a math degree but struck out on his first application to join the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union math team. Then just four days before school began in 2011, he got a call. A high school math teacher had suddenly resigned, and the school wanted him pronto.
“I said yes.”
Bouvier began teaching on a provisional license and enrolled in the graduate education program at St. Michael’s College. He began putting in the coursework needed for certification, while also acquiring his license through Vermont’s peer review process.
He loved teaching, but felt he’d be able to have more of an impact as an administrator. So he kept up his coursework at St. Mike’s and graduated in 2016 with a Master’s in School Leadership and Administration.
Bouvier credits Centerbar and Logan-Robnett and many other generous colleagues for helping him have the confidence to become an educator. Likewise he credits a number of Mount Abe administrators for encouraging his interest in school leadership and giving him opportunities to serve and learn.
When Andy Kepes was Mount Abe principal, he scheduled a weekly spot for Bouvier to work alongside him on his administrative rounds. Gaynell Lyman, Kepes’s successor as principal, hired Bouvier as the school’s administrative liaison (a position similar to dean of students) for the 2014-2015 academic year.
In 2015-2016, Bouvier returned to teaching. Last summer he was hired as dean of students. In late December, he was appointed interim assistant principal. On March 28, he officially got the job and dropped “interim” from his title.
Bouvier credits Lyman especially with helping him find how to lead with confidence, learn from mistakes, and refocus complaints as problem solving opportunities. She also guided him to focus on the positive.
“We focus so hard on what we don’t do very well, ” Bouvier said, “or what a student might have done that was bad instead of like, ‘But did that student make it through 45 minutes of class and before they’d only made it through 15? So that’s a win.’ So really getting the small victories and knowing that those mean the world to students.”
Those small victories, Bouvier believes, lead to the kind of “aha!” moments that can turn kids’ lives around.
“It’s all about building that relationship with the student and celebrating what they are, helping them to identify what their strengths are,” he said.
“I always say to students, ‘I still love you as much when you leave this office after you’ve done something wrong as I did when you came in.’ I let them know ‘I’m still going to support you, and we’re going to work through this challenge instead of run away from it or sweep it under the carpet.’”
Adults can get impatient, Bouvier said, when a disruptive behavior doesn’t change right away. But he said it’s his job to point out the steps forward.
“To draw the ‘aha!’ moments for everybody to see is really powerful.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]