Sue Kirby, left, Kathy George and Jane Russett are honored on their retirements Tuesday in an assembly at Williamstown Elementary.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Sue Kirby can remember when physical education classes looked a lot different than they do today.
"Muriel Flagg had two canes. I don't know what happened to her, because she wasn't always like that," Kirby said this week while reminiscing about her career. "I remember you had to climb the ropes, and she hit you with a cane to get you up the rope.
"We don't even have the ropes."
And they certainly don't have the canes.
But Kirby found her own ways to get the most out of her pupils over more than four decades as an educator in the Williamstown public schools.
This past week, her 43-year career came to a close with her retirement from Williamstown Elementary School.
Kirby has seen a lot of changes in the schools over the years — and not just the motivational tactics. But she has been a constant for generations of Williamstowners. Since arriving at the school in 1976 — back when it was three separate schools for Grades Pre-K through 6 — Kirby has taught the children of her former pupils, her current boss and her successor, Ben Burdick, a 2009 WES graduate who will fill phys ed position this fall.
"She was one of the teachers that really cared about all her students," Burdick said. "Ms. Kirby was the reason I myself wanted to become a physical education teacher. She taught me and inspired me to live a healthy lifestyle.
"I know I have big 'sneakers' to fill in the upcoming school year, however, I want to continue to inspire through teaching physical education the students here at Williamstown Elementary School to enjoy being active and inspire them to live healthy lifestyles. Also to give the students the tools and skills they learned in PE to continue throughout their lives like Ms. Kirby did to me."
Sue Kirby sat down with iBerkshires.com last week to talk about her career.
Question: As much of an impact as classroom teachers have on children, being with them for six hours a day, or whatever it works out to be, usually that is just for one year. Your experience with the kids can last six or seven years, or more, depending on whether they attend preschool here.
Sue Kirby: Yes it does, and sometimes they come back and visit.
Q:Have you thought about what a big role you played in so many kids' lives? I'm sure you hear from them about that.
Kirby: I don't like to pat myself on the back. I'm a little humble with that.
I just like to make kids happy and laugh and enjoy some type of activity that maybe they can carry on through the rest of their lives, so they can see how important it is to stay active and grow into healthy adults.
I also like to promote kindness to one another and sportsmanship is a big thing that I like to promote as well.
I love being with the kids. I've loved being with them for 43 years. I have former students who work at the school, including one who is a grandmother.
[Principal Joelle Brookner] was my student.
Q: You mentioned the lessons of being active and carrying those into adulthood. You've seen students carry that lesson into their high school years, their college years and even beyond.
Kirby: Yeah. And some of the former students who now have children in the school will come back and reminisce with me about activities they did back in the day. And they'll talk to their own children about things that we did. And it had a big impact on them.
I had a former student, Andrew Agostini, I saw him in the hall last week. He was here visiting. And he gave me a big hug and said, 'Do you remember what an impact you had on me?' I said, 'I know that you did well. You were fine in class and everything.' But he said, 'I remember that you told me that [Mount Greylock quarterback] John Meczwyor was going to graduate, so there was an opening coming up.' I guess he got it.
And he says, 'I also remember you saying that sports for girls were just as important as it was for boys.' I said, 'Thank you for remembering that.'
Those are the kinds of things I like to hear. Sometimes, I forget things until people tell me, like Andrew did. It meant a lot for him to tell me that. It meant a lot to me, for sure.
I've gotten notes from parents about how much their kids are going to miss me. And it's sad. But it is time to move on.
Can I tell you that this is the first gymnasium I've taught in?
Q: I was going to ask about that, because obviously with 43 years, you predate the building we're sitting in. There were still neighborhood schools at the time, or how did it work?
Kirby: There was Southworth, Grant and Mitchell, and they were not connected. They were the schools I went to because I'm an alum of Mount Greylock, as well.
Fifth and sixth was over there [at Southworth], and they had primaries in Grant, and they had other classes in Mitchell. That was back in January of 1976, when I started, and it was always that way when I was a student here.
Then they wanted to do renovations, and that meant connecting the buildings and also putting in a new gym because they wanted to make the old gym into kind of a multi-purpose room with a new cafeteria underneath it. So that big gym was actually … shortened in half so the top part was a multi-purpose room, like an auditorium with bleachers, and the rest underneath was a cafeteria.
And then we had a new gymnasium. That was in 1979. My dad (William Kirby) was an architect in Williamstown for many years, and he designed all the renovations, including my gym.
When they tore down the old gym, I got a couple of bricks that I use for pencil holders. But I was really proud of the fact that my dad did that.
Q: How has physical education as a discipline changed?
Kirby: When I came, physical education was starting to change because when I started a lot of adults had had bad experiences with PE.
The jocks were the ones who would excel and be made a big deal of. A lot of people were embarrassed by different things. They did the fitness testing. I'm not a proponent of fitness testing. I can do the activities, have the kids do them. But I don't like the fitness testing, per se, because I remember when I first started teaching and we were doing that and having numerous kids try to do pullups. They were severely overweight, and it was so embarrassing to them. So I immediately stopped anything that was going to make them feel uncomfortable.
Q: Were there mandates from above to do that?
Kirby: Yes, we had to do the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.
Now, there's something called FitnessGram, and it's basically the same thing. But I don't do testing, per se.
Some kids, they like to do the miles. I'll have them walk the mile if they want to or run it. And if they do a half mile or whatever. But I would rather have them leave here some passion for doing something on their own, an activity that they like doing here. And maybe it was just a simple ball type game, but maybe they would do that with their families when they got older or pursue tennis or something when they got older. I'd much rather see the kids enjoy gym. Kids aren't going to enjoy gym if they have to come and be embarrassed in fitness testing.
Q: That turns them off to the idea and they go in the other direction.
Q: You mentioned that you wanted to talk about your successor.
Kirby: This is really cool. I was on the [hiring] committee, and that usually doesn't happen, but I requested it. I'm very nervous about who was going to be coming in to take care of these kids. And they were nervous as well, the kids.
A former student of mine is going to be my replacement, Ben Burdick, one of the Burdicks from Williamstown. Ben had sent me an email back in the winter saying that he was graduating this May from Springfield College. … And he told me that I had fueled his love for teaching PE, which really made me feel good.
We had seven great candidates. Ben's interview was over-the-top great. And then he did a demo lesson with one of my tough second grade classes. There was a little boy who went over to the corner during the lesson, and [Burdick] went over and got him to help demonstrate something. A little girl was crying because she was not in a group, and he went over and asked her her name, told her how pretty her name was and just calmed her down. That's the kind of thing I want to happen in here — to have a compassionate person who also has a sense of humor.
I think he'll be fine. So I'm really comfortable.
Q: You mentioned he's coming out of Springfield College. Was this your first job as well?
Kirby: This was my first job. I went to Bridgewater State University. When I started here, it was a part-time position. I had been teaching at the YMCA. I started a swimming program for the mentally challenged.
Q: This was at the Northern Berkshire YMCA?
Kirby: Yes, which my father also designed.
Q: You said earlier that it's time to go. What's next for you?
Kirby: Tennis. A lot of fall tennis. I have a group of ladies I play with in Adams. And pickleball, I'm going to try that. I played it once.
Spending time with my family and also helping Betsy [Reali] next year with the [WES sixth-grade] musical. I'll have more energy. I have [rheumatoid arthritis] and fibromyalgia, so it's been kind of tough the last few years. I'm totally exhausted at the end of the day.
Q: That will be a nice day to stay involved and see the kids.
Kirby: And Betsy is my closest friend. We've been friends for years.
We used to do a lot of dance classes together, too, having the kids come in and dance.
And at some point, I'll probably want to come back and substitute. I feel like I'll know most of the kids if I only take a year off.
Q: That goes back to what we talked about earlier: You really do have a chance to get to know all the kids and see them mature over the six or seven years.
Kirby: I have a fifth-grade girl now. She moved here when she was, I think, in third grade. She was deathly afraid of any kind of ball at all. And, now she just gets right out there and plays. Her confidence has been built. And she feels comfortable in what she's doing.
Just her self-confidence has boomed big time.
There are a couple of girls in fourth grade now who used to be very shy and didn't want to do much of the activities, and now they come in as PE Buddies.
That was another part of what I loved doing, making up the PE Buddies program. I was glad I put that together years ago.
Q: That's a program that gives the older kids a chance to work with the younger kids.
Kirby: I have fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders doing it. I used to just have fourth-graders. This year, I have three sixth-grade boys who've come for the last three years, since they were in fourth grade. That's impressive.
The most important thing is they give up their recess to come in and do that, even on nice days. I tell them, 'Why don't you go outside and play?' No, they want to come in, and the little kids love them. That's impressive that they want to do that. And, boy, they are helpful.
Q: It really does add to the culture of the school, having that connection between kids across grades.
Kirby: It does, because I tell the sixth-grade kids who come in and help, 'When you do the musical upstairs, and the first-graders see you, they're going to be in awe. And they're going to know who you are. And they're going to feel so special because there you are up on stage … and you got to help them in PE class.'
I think that's important. I'm hoping Ben will continue the PE Buddies program. It would be in his best interest down the road. I've also used it with the fourth grade as kind of an incentive for their behavior in PE class. If they didn't have the proper behavior that day, they weren't allowed to come.
Then they come and watch what's going on in the lower grades, and they say, 'Ms. Kirby, do you know that so-and-so did this or that?' And I say, 'Yes. Now you know what I go through.'
Q: Is Boney Maroney [the model skeleton Kirby uses to teach basic anatomy] retiring, too?
Kirby: [Laughs] I'm going to leave him here for Ben. He's still around. He's hanging around.
Q: When did you start using that?
Kirby: Probably about 15 years ago. It just took off. I've had former students come back. One went into forensics, she liked it that much. … Someone else told me that when their son fell skiing at Jiminy Peak, he told the ski patrol, 'I think I broke my tibia or my fibula,' instead of, 'my leg.'
I started that in Pre-K. It's a lot of fun.
Q: How was it telling the kids that you were retiring — the ones who are old enough to understand but still young enough that they're going to be here next year, like the fourth- and fifth-graders?
Kirby: It was hard. Even with the little kids, it was hard. Yesterday there was an assembly in the auditorium. A lot of kids got to sing songs. It was for Jane Russett and Kathy [George] and I. Some boys from Mount Greylock, Colleen Martin got her two sons and Jack Cangelosi and Alex Axt back, and they sang, 'One Call Away.' They sang that and brought me to tears.
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