Teacher’s blog captures last 45 days of kindergarten, countdown to a new life
By Marianne Ratcliff
Santa Paula News
Published: August 16, 2013
I’ve come to the end... the end of this blog, the end of this school year, the end of my time at Summit School, and the end of my teaching career in Ojai. I think that I’m ready for this closing because I find that I’ve run out of words (and that rarely happens to me).
There is a quote by Tom Stoppard:
‘Every exit is an entry somewhere else.’
As I make this exit, I am ready to also make an entrance. I plan on taking all of my memories, experiences, and friendships with me in my heart as I begin this new adventure.
Each one of my students, past and present, along with their families, have touched my life in a profound and meaningful way. I will forever be grateful to the Summit School community who warmly welcomed me seven years ago, and has made me feel right at home ever since.
Christopher Robin to Winnie-the-Pooh:
‘Promise me you’ll
You’re braver than
and stronger than
and smarter than
- A. A. Milne
Thanks to you all.
-- Isabelle Turpin’s last blog entry on email@example.com
By Marianne Ratcliff
Isabelle Turpin is holding a yard sale in her Summit School classroom. Books, “desk pets,” puzzles, stickers, beanbags, blocks, pet cages, beads, amassed over 21 years of teaching. Students and parents are in awe of all that has been disgorged from Turpin’s cabinets in her usually organized classroom.
Two days earlier on June 12, the much-loved kindergarten and first-grade teacher bade farewell to teaching in the last entry of her blog, firstname.lastname@example.org, which she started April 10. “It was a bit random,” she said, noting that chronicling the last 45 days of her teaching career was inspired by her 45th birthday in March.
In it, she shares her wisdom, whimsies, delights and dreams for a future in a new home and a new city, with a new husband and new challenges. Turpin got married June 29 and is moving to Cupertino with her husband, Greg McNeil. As one of her master’s degrees is in special education with a specialty in autism, she is considering getting another degree in counseling and working with families with autistic children.
She decided her final days in the classroom would be the perfect topic for a blog. “My mission was to make it off-the-cuff, organic,” Turpin said. “I never did a rough draft. Oftentimes, I would sit down and go, ‘huh,’ because it would take me somewhere I never thought I would go.”
Turpin’s blonde hair is in a ponytail, and her running shorts and T-shirt are covered by her black apron, with “Mrs. Turpin” embroidered in white on the front. She is moving desks, answering questions, parting with classroom treasures such as the brightly colored beanbags her mother hand-sewed for her students, getting hugs, packing up. It is difficult to release so much, she said, but she said she keeps in mind that “it is the journey, not the things. The ultimate souvenir as a teacher is to have the student right in front of you.”
Her students and their parents have been in denial ever since the engagement was announced, but school is finally out after a wild week with a school play, talent show, all-school skating outing and back-to-back kindergarten and sixth-grade promotions.
It is just dawning on Turpin that this is it. “I’ve managed because it hasn’t sunk in yet because I’ve been so busy,” she said two days after the last day of school. “Eventually, when I stop going, when I drive down the hill, that’s when it gets to me,” she said of the commute to and from the small Upper Ojai public school.
Everyone in the school is happy for Turpin, but it’s hard to imagine Summit School without her. “I always appreciated how you do everything in a positive way,” said Karen Bertin, a mother of four boys, who have all been taught by Turpin. “The very first year I brought Michael here, everything was perfect. Each year, things changed and it was still amazingly perfect.”
“Perfectly imperfect,” Turpin rejoined, smiling.
Turpin taught sixth grade for 10 years at Meiners Oaks School, then taught first- and second-graders there. Not long after her son, Brighton, was born 14 years ago, she earned a master’s degree in special education and took a resource teaching position in the Ojai Unified School District. That led to her working as a resource specialist, P.E. specialist and primary teacher at Summit seven years ago.
“I loved it,” she said, explaining that teaching primary students after her own son got older has been a chance for her to again “read all the stories I love to read and do all the crafts I love to do, to see the students blossom and explore. The kids are exceptional, the parents are exceptional, the school is exceptional.”
And, students and parents would add, Turpin is exceptional.
It is apparent from before the school bell rings that something special is happening in the classroom where Turpin starts each schoolday greeting students and parents at the threshold, sharing a letter or word of the day and making those on the other side of the door when it closes wish they could join in the fun. “It bridges the home-school gap when parents are all around and start the day with us,” Turpin said. “I like that feeling. It works for the kids and works for the grownups.”
Turpin’s first-day-of-school ritual is to greet her new charges with a handshake and look them in the eye. Every day thereafter, when students line up to enter her classroom, she looks at each one up and down the line to let them know: “I know they’re here. I make that connection.”
How to firmly shake hands is just one of life’s lessons students learn before they even step into Turpin’s classroom. She teaches her students that they will remember better when they turn their whole body toward the person who is speaking and look them in the face. She said she also enjoys teaching children how to wink... “just those little things. So many things they learn are not just for kindergarten or the classroom.”
Turpin addresses her students as “friends.” “I’m the teacher and they are the students,” she explained, “but we’re all friends.” Summit School feels like a family with its small size, combined-grade classrooms and interaction between students in kindergarten through sixth grades. It promotes a feeling that “everyone is valuable,” Turpin said. “I say ‘friends,’ and it makes it so. It becomes our vernacular. That’s important to me, especially in a place like this.”
When people wonder at how Turpin has the stamina to keep up with 5- and 6-year-olds all day, she explains that she thrives on it. Not surprising from a teacher who ran 31/2 miles for the Summit School jogathon and then, after school was out, ran 12 miles home down the Dennison Grade. “I don’t think I could do a job that was the same day in and day out,” she said. Another bonus is that her job involves being indoors and outdoors.
The cyclical nature of teaching appeals to her, she said. “There is a beginning, middle and end of each day and year,” and when she is at school, “I am completely immersed into the experience here. An object in motion stays in motion. The momentum and energy carry me through the day. It is the greatest job ever.”
Turpin is known for seizing teaching opportunities, such as when a fire truck rolled into the parking lot for an inspection. Summit Station firefighters were happy to oblige Turpin’s request that they stick around to show off their fire truck. “Every moment is a teachable moment,” she said. “Just looking out the window is a teachable moment. The color of Dean’s shirt, a balloon,” she said, observing 5-year-old Dean Hancock in a light-green shirt holding a blue “balloon.” It’s all worth talking about,” she said, adding that the tough part is “figuring out what I’m not going to do.”
“You can come to school with a lesson plan,” she said, “but you never know what will happen. I’m not married to that exact plan.”
Ask her what school activities she most enjoys and Turpin doesn’t hesitate: “I love doing the musical,” she said. “I was a partridge in a pear tree in first grade and stood on a footstool. I loved that experience.” She knows her students do, too. “The most wonderful moments are when I see them on stage,” she said. “They get on that stage and they shine unbelievably bright.”
That tops the list, followed by the school Halloween parade, trick-or-treating downtown, the Summit School Talent Show, Teddy Bear Picnic, Thanksgiving Feast, Gingerbread Man, making stone soup, visits from mischievous leprechauns who turn Turpin’s classroom topsy-turvy every St. Patrick’s Day, the spring egg hunt, cookie Fridays.
Any excuse to “bring parents and families to school as often as I can,” she said. The fact that the school and community are intertwined is “what makes Summit so great to me,” Turpin said. “It is why I so cherish this school and all the families.”
Turpin said she tries to recreate for her own students all the things she loved about being a kindergartener. Her teacher at Fremont Elementary School in Glendale taught her students almost every musical instrument. They raised and raced ducklings, put on plays and did arts and crafts.”I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. The proof is that she saved all her art projects in second grade so she could use them as examples for her own students. “I loved arts and crafts,” she said, noting that her dad is an artist. She even carefully dismantled and preserved her fourth-grade mission to use in her own classroom.
Years ago, when Brighton’s teacher had “desk pets’’ -- stuffed animals that sat on students’ desks -- Turpin made desk pets a staple in her own classroom.
“It’s such a gift of teaching that people are trusting you with their child,” she said, adding her philosophy is that “educating your child is third on my list.” The first is that “everyone is emotionally and physically safe. Then, everyone loves being there. Then I teach. If I don’t have the first and second, the third won’t happen. If they feel good and love school, they’re going to be a success. Success is measured in an infinite number of ways. For some, it is being able to leave their parents or learning to read or feeling confident on the playground.”
Every day at school is packed with happy surprises, such as when 5-year-old Patrick Bertin tells Turpin: “You look so beautiful today.”
“He sees beauty,” Turpin said. “He doesn’t see the glitter in the hair or no makeup.”
One classroom-management tool that Turpin uses is “personal challenges.” That would include such things as not touching one’s face, staying seated during circle time, raising a hand to ask a question.
“It’s magical,” Bertin said, noting that Turpin has only to say, “Personal challenge,” and one can watch each student correct his or her own behavior.
In preparation for the kindergarten promotion, first-graders prepared short speeches for their kindergarten classmates. “They see the essence of each other,” Turpin said. “I love the creative process as they brainstorm with a partner and come up with five or 10 sentences. This is a life lesson.”
Although Turpin said she was sad to end her blog on the last day of school, after more than 50 entries, “it was time to be done.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t another blog in Turpin’s future. Stay tuned for “Planet Cupertino” blog, she said.
At the kindergarten promotion, which started with the cheery “Good Morning!” song and ended with the “Alphabet Boogie,” Turpin reached out her arms to her lined-up students and said, “You are dismissed.”
“It felt good, it just felt natural,” she said of that moment on her last day of school.
With only a few minutes remaining in her soon-to-be-empty classroom two days later, Turpin said: “It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to imagine that I will find anything so fulfilling. I was born to teach. I was born to be in this classroom, right here.”