VERGENNES — Late one recent morning, Vergennes Union High School junior Ashley Stearns burst into Judy Wiger’s science classroom.
“I’m mad at you,” Stearns told Wiger. “I’m mad at you because you’re leaving.”
The two hugged, but Wiger told Stearns she couldn’t talk to her right then: Wiger had scheduled an interview to talk with a newspaper reporter about her retirement this month after three decades at VUHS.
Following one of the many emotional encounters during her final weeks, it took a moment for Wiger to regain her composure. Then, the right words came.
“I guess that’s the part I’m going to miss,” she said. “I feel like I am so incredibly lucky. I’ve gotten to do what I love to do. I don’t feel for most of the 34 years in total that I’ve worked. I mean I’ve worked, but I’ve loved the work that I’ve done, and I’m going to miss that. And I know mostly (I’ll miss) the kids.”
According to VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley, the school will miss the East Middlebury resident, too.
“Judy Wiger is a veteran teacher to be sure, but after 30 or so years, she continues to burn brightly in the classroom and she continues to lead her peers. Judy’s ideals lead her instruction,” Webbley said in an email. “Judy served for years as science department chair, and she remains an AP Biology teacher par excellence and a crackerjack chemistry instructor.”
Unlike some teachers, the 59-year-old New York City native did not feel the classroom calling at an early age, although she enjoyed school and the profession runs in her family — her father taught and both her sisters now teach.
“I loved the school part of school, but the social part, I never felt like I fit in,” Wiger said.
When she attended Plattsburgh State University in the 1970s, Wiger considered archaeology or medicine. But her parents prevailed upon her to study education.
“At that point in time, it was something that a woman could do,” she said. “It was kind of the old standby.”
Wiger enjoyed student teaching, and settled in Maryland with her first husband. Making it through her first year of full-time teaching convinced her she was on the right track, even if it wasn’t always easy.
“I was essentially the perfect student. I never got into trouble. I did everything I was asked to do,” she said. “I truly didn’t realize there were kids that were different from me. So I met kids my first year teaching, I remember this huge kid, and I asked him to do something, and he said no. And I’m going, is there backup? What do you mean no? To this day I don’t remember how I responded ... I survived the first year, and I thought, ‘OK, it’s all downhill from here.’”
After six years in Maryland, the couple moved to Vermont with their 1-year-old son, Zachary. Wiger found the job at VUHS in 1982 that has lasted since, with some years off, despite a rocky welcome.
“When I came into this school for the first day, I remember following two kids down the hall, and one says to the other, ‘I heard we have a new science teacher.’ And the other one says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I heard.’ And the other one goes back to the first one, ‘I wonder how long it will take to run this one out?’” Wiger said.
Wiger survived that greeting, but her first marriage did not last, and she never finished the credits she needed for a post-graduate degree.
“Soon after I got up here I found myself a single parent, and that pretty much precluded going back to school,” Wiger said. “I needed to be with my kid.”
But she hit her stride in the classroom. Wiger said teaching a constantly changing subject like science and meeting new students every year has helped keep her job fresh.
“It’s always a new group of kids, a new group of personalities,” she said. “There’s always new ideas, new research. So you add that into the mix, and it’s like no two years, no two semesters, are the same. It’s always stimulating.”
‘AGENT OF CHANGE’
Along the way, Wiger was among the first faculty members recruited to be a VUHS “teacher-leader.” VUHS has made efforts to improve its teaching and encourage teachers to step forward.
“He (Webbley) came into the school with the idea that he wanted to distribute leadership among interested teachers. And so I really don’t even know why I was approached about doing that, but I became the lead dog of this leadership group that included the administration and department chairs and a variety of other individuals,” Wiger said. “And herding cats doesn’t even begin to describe (the process).”
The first group effort was introducing meeting protocols that create structured times for all to speak in turn and keep the focus on agenda topics.
“You use specific techniques ... in order to carry on discussions. And one of the reasons is to keep those discussions very focused, and the primary reason for that is we have only X amount of time, so you can’t just be wandering all over the place,” Wiger said. “It levels the playing field, it provides equal air time.”
She said some teachers who were used to speaking more often and freely chafed under the rules, but now meetings devoted to topics that include establishing Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements at VUHS operate comfortably under those guidelines.
“It was not received well. There were a number of names used in reference to the group of us that started doing this,” Wiger said. “But now those strategies ... pervade the school.”
Webbley said Wiger also championed the school’s use of the “formative assessments” process. Simply put, that means having a teacher identify quickly when a student is not grasping a concept and using the school’s recently created call-back period to meet with the student and bring him and her up to speed before the student falls too far behind.
At a recent assembly, Webbley called Wiger an “agent of change.” He noted that Wiger served as the school’s lead trainer in the formative assessments as well as helped establish the protocols.
“Her contributions to the learning culture extend well beyond the classroom,” he wrote. “Judy Wiger’s courage in leading change — a painful process in an institution designed to resist change — served as a model for an entire wave of teacher-leaders who drive our improvement. We will miss her fearlessness and compassion.”
The years also brought new love and heartbreak for Wiger. She married again, and had a second son, Jonathan, with her husband, Matt. But Matt died unexpectedly in 1999 at the age of 39. Zachary was 19, and Jonathan was eight.
Memories of Matt helped her decide to step down now: Wiger wants some time to enjoy life.
“I would prefer to be still ambulatory when I leave my job. There’s a lot of stuff to do,” Wiger said. “One of the things was recognizing the pace here is incredible, and not only the pace, the intensity ... I did start to feel, at least in some respects, it was starting to take its toll, and partly because I don’t want to keep rushing. And my husband’s death would come back periodically. This isn’t a rehearsal for something that’s going to come next. This is the shot you’re given.”
And she has met someone else, a resident of Hawaii’s main island. Wiger will keep her East Middlebury home, but spend most of her time in Hawaii. She is by no means ready to cut her Vermont ties.
“This has been my home,” she said. “I absolutely love it here.”
Another reason Wiger will retire is that she harbors doubts about American education.
“We’re continuing to try to use and mend and try to rehabilitate ... an educational system that ... I am having a hard time believing is going to work any more,” she said.
Wiger, who tells her students, “I want your best every day,” said she doesn’t have a solution.
But she did have a suggestion.
“I can have difficulties with big people. But the kids, if we would just listen to them. They do have a brain. They do have intellect. They do have amazing things to offer,” Wiger said. “If we’re looking for them to be the future, let’s treat them like they are the future and not just some clones of us or robots given a set of instructions. I think we don’t give them nearly enough credit.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.