Deborah Andersen has taught generations of third graders in Bolton Landing, including the parents of her students, most of her nieces and nephews, and her own children, Andrea and Michael.
Hers is an important role in this Adirondack community. Third grade is the year you learn fractions, the first year of state testing, and, yes, the year everyone learns to play the recorder. And research shows students who are performing at grade level in third grade are most likely to remain successful throughout their schooling.
“It’s one of the reasons Deb is there,” says Mike Graney, superintendent of the Bolton Central School District. “She does a great job getting kids off on a great start. She’s been a rock on our staff long before I got there,” Graney says.
Andersen is teaching 11 students this year. Last year she taught 22, and next year she’ll have 19. She knows them before they are her students, since she’s seen them around the school for three years. “It’s a rare year when you don’t know everyone’s name before they come into your classroom,” she says.
Bolton Central School District has only two hundred students from pre-K through twelfth grade. In a small town, school activities—plays, recitals, the PTO March Madness tournament where adults sign up to play each other in a fund-raising game—become community activities. She knows the students. And the students, who have been in the same small class together since starting school, know each other so well they’re like another set of siblings. “We become more of a family,” Andersen says. A family with no secrets. “They’re an open book at this age,” she says with a laugh.
Sometimes her work is heartbreaking, too, as it was the year a student moved to Bolton Landing from abroad halfway through the year, after losing her mother to cancer. Because she was coming from another country, she was behind the rest of the class. There were only 10 kids that year, Andersen says, tearing up a little as she tells the story, and they immediately welcomed the young girl into their group. Academically, she ended up spending another year in Andersen’s class and “flourished. ” She meshed with them beautifully,” Andersen says.
There are advantages to teaching in a small school with a wealthy Lake George tax base. All of Andersen’s students are given iPads to use, with apps for math and language reinforcement, and use it to write their reports on animals. Andersen hooks her own Apple computer up to a SMART Board for lessons and guided practices, allowing her to project her computer onto a screen.
Challenges are similar to those of other schools: kids are spread too thin with activities they’re involved in and so they come in tired. And different from urban schools: when they have a doctor’s or dentist’s appointment, they have to travel an hour and forty minutes, which can take them out for an entire day. Graney says the school’s small size can make it difficult to fill its sports teams. They can’t field a JV squad, for instance. But because they’re small, there are no cuts. Any kid who wants to play can make the team. Everyone can be in the school play. And the graduating students Andersen hears from in her role on the Bolton Scholarship Association, which helps students pay for tuition and books, say their education here makes them well-prepared for college. However, the lack of jobs and affordable housing makes it difficult to come back.
Andersen graduated from Bolton herself. She went to SUNY Potsdam and then the University at Albany for her master’s in reading. She taught for five years at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Rome, in central New York, but when the Air Force base closed, she knew her job might be eliminated and began looking for work back home. “I was lucky the fourth-grade teacher was retiring,” she said. She’s been teaching almost forty years.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe.