Exit interviews

Belfast sends off two longtime educators

Henderson, Hoenig reflect on three decades of school life
By Ethan Andrews | May 05, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Principal Jody Henderson with students at Captain Albert W. Stevens Elementary School in Belfast. The longtime Belfast-area educator and administrator is retiring at the end of the school year.

Belfast — Students today are less likely to know how to peel a hard-boiled egg, and less apt to judge their peers based on stereotypes than they were 30 years ago. Their parents love them just as much, but those parents are working more, and more of them are in jail than in the past. Assessments and paperwork take up a larger share of teachers' attention, and school buildings have more space wasted on architectural caprice than they once did. And kids are as amazing and deserving of our time as ever, say two veteran educators retiring this year.

Jody Henderson, principal of Captain Albert W. Stevens Elementary School, and Lynn Hoenig, fifth-grade teacher at East Belfast Elementary School, will have served Belfast area students for more than 60 years between them when they leave June 30. They shared their thoughts with us about life on the front lines of education and school administration.

Henderson grew up in New Jersey, studied to an advanced education degree in Connecticut, taught at a psychiatric hospital, married an artist and moved to Maine after visiting friends and vacationing here.

On arriving, she got a job teaching special education at Waldo County Vocational Center, now Waldo County Technical Center, then at Belfast Area High School.

She taught fourth grade at Peirce Elementary School before starting her career in administration as the district's K-12 curriculum coordinator. At some point, she was encouraged to apply for superintendent but already felt too far removed from students and opted to go "back into the trenches" for two years.

"That's part of the formula for being a good principal," she said. "You need to know what it's like to orchestrate a classroom and curriculum at different levels. You have to be able to walk in their shoes, without a doubt."

In 2002, she began a string of dual principalships. Having just settled into being a teacher again, she recalled learning from then-Superintendent Bob Young that she would be switching roles and schools: "I looked at him and said, I just learned all these kids' names."

Her new assignment paired East Belfast Elementary School with three of the district's other elementary schools: Gov. Anderson in Belfast, Kermit Nickerson in Swanville and Edna Drinkwater in Northport.

As principal — the shuffling ended when she landed at CASS several years back — she felt a sense of responsibility to the whole school, not only to foster a team environment where teachers and staff could do their best work, but to ensure the safety of students.

For many years, this meant domestic issues. But the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School turned a focus to unpredictable outside threats. Henderson said the local response made her question whether she wanted to continue her job.

"I remember hearing, let's arm the principal," she said. "I thought, they're going to give me a gun?"

On the academic side, Henderson witnessed the well-publicized rise in assessments. And though she believes in measuring where you stand, she has wrestled with the tests that don't convey the results to teachers in time to make a difference.

In particular, she would do away with the Maine Educational Assessment, she said. But with Title 1 money attached to the process and Regional School Unit 71 towns not wealthy enough to opt out, she makes a point of jumping through any and all hoops.

"We would never say, no thank you," she said. "We would say, what else do we have to do? It's a substantial amount of money."

Money has always been tight, and teachers have mostly lived by their wits when planning special activities. Henderson recalled leading her fourth-grade class at Peirce School into a business venture, selling milk cartons stuffed with donated wood scraps. These "firestarters" sold for 5 cents each and were wildly popular.

"We had a supply and demand problem that I got to teach about," she said. Tallying money dovetailed with math lessons; there were conversations about efficiency and the costs and benefits of giving up part of recess to assemble products.

More recently, she watched K-1 students at CASS collect $200 in change to put toward supporting the bird population around the school. They took the coins to Bangor Savings Bank where they used the coin-counting kiosk and got bills along with a donation to the cause.

"It was community; it was school," Henderson said. "That community connection and real life connection is so important. And kids remember that."

Not all financial shortcomings build character. Poverty combined with an unsteady economy has brought an increase in family crises that affect students. "When we have people not working, the stress on the family is tremendous and kids know it," she said. There are more homeless students and more drug-related problems. Collectively, there are more "silent parents" who go mostly unknown to teachers and administrators.

On the wall of her office is an African-style quilt, assembled by a parent from square panels painted by her students in the late 1990s. Each panel has a name, and Henderson has kept track of many of them. One ended up being her next-door neighbor. Another is a local police officer. There's a nurse and a doctor and "lots of moms."

"Some of the stories are sad; some of them are predictable," she said, noting that fortunately all of the students are still living.

Retiring, she said, will be bittersweet. She half-joked that she never wanted her co-workers to look at her and think, "She did a great job but she should have retired two years ago." She reported no grand plans but said she's hoping to rekindle a creative side of herself she set aside years ago.

"It's something you anticipate and plan for doing," she said. "But I'm leaving a family, a supportive staff, supportive families." For now she's focusing on the next two months of work out of a desire to leave her school better than it was when she arrived and well positioned for the future.

"I think a good leader is one who leads and it keeps going," she said.

Lynn Hoenig crossed paths with Henderson for a short time when the latter was principal of East Belfast Elementary School. Unlike Henderson, Hoenig stayed in one place for the entirety of her 32-year education career.

Growing up in New Jersey, Hoenig said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She went to Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) because it had the best education program in the state.

The dream was deferred for a short time after she got married as she followed her husband, a successful veterinarian, through several career moves. During a spell as a year-round resident on Martha's Vineyard, where where two of their three children were born, she gave school presentations for the MSPCA on endangered species and "cats throughout history." Later she worked as a census taker, sold encyclopedias and Avon products. "Anything we needed to do," she said.

Her patience paid off. After bouncing back and forth from Massachusetts to Maine, the couple landed in Belfast in 1983. Hoenig started teaching at East Belfast Elementary School two years later and after a rocky inaugural assignment as a first-grade teacher — Hoenig had young children of her own and remembered desperately wanting "to speak to somebody over the age of six" — she moved to the upper grades, where the children were naturally curious and could dress themselves for recess.

Hoenig has been the school's head teacher since 2000 and now teaches fifth grade.

As part of a combined grade 4 and 5 program, she bonded with Elizabeth Totman in the next classroom. The young teachers lobbied to cut a large section out of the wall to allow for a more immersive team-teaching environment. When administration balked, Hoenig and Totman got a local contractor to do it and took the heat along with the rewards.

The school was rebuilt in 2005 and the wall between the classrooms along with it, but the classrooms still share a doorway and the two teachers still work closely together.

In her own classroom, Hoenig plays her students recordings of Civil War-era music around key historical dates of the war. On Norah Jones' birthday, she plays Norah Jones. Ditto, Beethoven.

"We listen to opera, and they're like, oh my God, when it's Verdi's birthday," she said. The "oh my Gods" in this case were more eye-rolling than ecstasy. "But you never know what it's going to spark," she said.

Hoenig echoed Henderson's frustration with assessments, and likewise singled out the state tests. Apart from the time they require, she said, the tests focus only on proficiency. Hoenig believes progress is the more relevant measurement for students whose abilities may vary in relation to the fixed and general standards of their grade level.

In other words, students become proficient at different times.

To that point, Hoenig said she spends more time teaching students basic skills and giving them experiences that earlier generations got at home. She remembered her initial shock at learning some of her fifth-graders had never peeled a hard-boiled egg. Many hadn't been on a boat or swum in the ocean, though the school is a stone's throw from the bay.

One reason may be that parents are more often working two or three jobs. And Hoenig noted that more of them are incarcerated than in the past, possibly because of a growing problem of drug abuse in the area.

Hoenig makes a point to teach tolerance, which she said is not innate but important for understanding one's place in the world. The campaign against stereotyping that many schools are waging has made for fewer of those kinds of judgments among students than in the past. Hoenig adds lessons about the power of a kind word.

"You can't be a bystander," she said.

The same goes for the environment, community, and the list goes on.

"So, it falls more to the schools to enrich the children with different programs," she said. The upshot, she said, is that parents seem to trust schools in that role.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Carolyn Zachary | May 07, 2017 13:58

As a substitute teacher, it's been my pleasure and privilege to work with these two gifted educators over several years. Thank you both for all you have done for the kids, for being role models for teachers and administrators, and for all the help you've given me. We will miss you.

--A sister Jersey transplant

 



Posted by: Lynn Hoenig | May 05, 2017 15:47

Thank you, John, and thank YOU for getting those fifth graders out on the water all those years you took us to Holbrook Island. Experiences they will never forget! It takes a village!

 



Posted by: John E Marshall | May 05, 2017 09:59

As a reading buddy for first and second grade in East Belfast School, it was my privilege to see both of these women, and their colleagues as educational leaders. Thank you for your service Jody and Lynn



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