Mr. G: “ John Has Always Been There”
The Norwich community mourns the loss of Mr. G. and we celebrate his life here. This article is reprinted from the Fall 2011 edition of the Norwich Times.
One of my favorite teachers.” “Exceptional.” “Superb.” The litany of superlatives about math and science teacher John Girard is long, and spoken with deep conviction by colleagues, supervisors, and former students. “He was outstanding,” says former Marion Cross School principal Milt Frye recalling his years working with Girard. “It came from his ability to stand back and let the kids figure things out.”
Mr. G., as he is known, began teaching in Norwich in 1966. He’d begun his teaching career two years before in Seabrook, NH. “Back then there were not as many applications for teaching as there are now,” he recalls. “I was browsing a pamphlet from the state, a listing of openings, and there was a math teacher position in Hanover. I didn’t know where Hanover was, but it paid $6000. So it was a strictly financial decision” – his starting pay was $3400 – “I sent an application. Then I got a letter from Norwich about a science position. I didn’t realize it was the same district, but I agreed to interview.” [President Kennedy signed the enabling legislation for our first-in-the-nation interstate school district in 1963.]
“I think they were looking for someone not set in his ways and teaching strategy,” says Mr. G. “I didn’t have much science background – I had a phys. ed. degree.” This training had trained him in biology and physiology, but the school wanted a physical sciences program. Barbara Barnes [see Elder Profile in the Winter/Spring 2011 edition of the Norwich Times] was developing and promulgating discovery science curricula in local schools, and she worked with the new young recruit. “When I first came on board, Barbara did everything to help me become a better teacher,” Mr. G. recalls. “She ran workshops for me and was in my classroom. She wasn’t going to let me fail.”
These efforts produced long-lasting results. “For years he provided a two-year science program based on the new way of teaching that came out of Sputnik,” says Milt Frye. [The Russian satellite, launched in 1957, provoked a fever of catch-up efforts in the US.] “He focused on physical science – terrific for that age kids because it’s stuff they can see, not something going on inside of a cell. He worked on motion, density – fundamental properties that children understand.”
Milt also remembers the power of Mr. G.’s teaching style. “He was exceptional at asking questions. He developed that skill because of that curriculum. I’d bite my tongue, as he was kind of painfully going through it so kids could find the answers. I knew what he was doing, and I still found it hard to keep quiet!”
This way of teaching seems routine to many adults now, but it was a revolution at the time (and may be again as schools teach to some external test). Mr. G. accomplished that difficult thing: a fundamental change of style. At Seabrook, “I was like a drill sergeant in the classroom,” he says. “Barbara convinced me that what was happening in the room” – noise and moving about – “was OK.”
During this sea-change in Mr. G.’s teaching, his home life was also undergoing profound upheaval. At Seabrook he and his new wife, Cathy, had been close to greater Boston, where both had grown up. In Vermont, “I was just trying to stay afloat in the classroom,” he remembers. “All our family and friends were there. Here we were where we knew no one. She was pregnant.... We spent a lot of weekends driving down to Massachusetts – and this was before the interstate.” Eventually, he adds, “we got through the first few years and realized what a nice community it is, and a great place to raise children.” Of the couple’s four children, three live in New England, including one in Norwich.
Doing the Numbers
In the late 1980s, the population at Cross School surged. For flexibility, as larger waves of students moved through the school, Milt wanted his teachers to be able to teach more than one subject. Mr. G. added math to his repertoire. “It was great for me – a nice challenge, and something I’ve enjoyed,” he says. “I just jumped in. I’ve learned a lot about math over the years, and a lot about teaching strategies.”
Perhaps it’s hard to see how to use a discovery teaching method with math – isn’t it just a matter of learning facts and techniques? – but Mr. G. has worked to do so. “There’s no substitute for basic facts,” he agrees, “but I try to find ways around them,” by which he means not avoiding facts but becoming familiar with their neighborhoods. Someone who is flummoxed (seriously or in passing) by “9 x 7 = ?” can instantly tell you what 10 x 7 is. “A lot of this program is about taking things apart. Kids will tell you, ‘Oh, I get that,’” Mr. G. explains. “When you use the adult algorithm they don’t understand it; they just memorize the steps. For example, in long division they’ll say ‘You drop down the next number.’ And if you ask why, they say, ‘That’s just how you do it.’”
“One of the things I have a pretty good handle on is what’s difficult for kids,” Mr. G. says. “It’s almost an instinct.” It may, of course, be a characteristic acquired from years of experience. “I’ve figured out strategies to share with them that help them through the difficult parts.”
Mr. G. did not abandon his interest in athletics when he moved to Norwich. He’s been such a force in children’s sports that the baseball field at Huntley Meadow is named in his honor. “He used to run the summer rec. program,” recalls Milt Frye. “He started soccer when I came. He’d never done any soccer, but he jumped right in. He ran the basketball program for years, and a 3 on 3 league. The kids would all go over to his house and play basketball in the yard.”
“He had a good relationship with a lot of kids outside of school because of the after-school program,” says David Millstone. “The amount of time he spent coaching!” Former student Lynn McCormick Adams recalls, “We all absolutely loved his sports program!”
Milt and David tell stories about Mr. G. in the past tense, but it’s not because he has left the school; it’s because they have. “I was at Marion Cross a mere 23 years,” laughs David. “John has always been there.” As he prepares for another year teaching 5th grade math, Mr. G., now 72, admits with a secret smile that he’ll retire “soon.”
Over the years he’s seen the town changing. “The population is more homogeneous now,” he says. “In the late ’60s there were still several operating farms. There was more diversity of backgrounds. Now it’s mostly Dartmouth, or the Medical Center, or the VA, or a home business.
“And we don’t have as much spontaneous play,” he adds. “Because both parents are working, maybe. So we plug [the kids] into programs so they’re safe till 5 o’clock. Back when my kids were young, my wife was at home, and they’d invite friends over to play.” And of course Mr. G. himself invited the hordes over for games.
Mr. G. isn’t planning to sit around after he retires. “We can help our kids, make their lives less complicated by helping bring up their children.” He explains emphatically, “NOT telling them how to do it, but being available.” One day a week the Girards pick up their grandson Thomas at day care. “He lights up when we walk in,” exclaims Mr. G. “What a feeling that is!