HOLDEN, Maine — The “aha” moment is what second-grade teacher Joy Knowles said she will miss the most when she leaves her classroom next week after 43 years of educating 7- and 8-year-olds.
“I will miss seeing their faces light up when all of a sudden they get it,” she said while seated in her Holden Elementary School classroom Wednesday surrounded by quietly working youngsters. “That and the hugs. Second-graders still hug.”
Knowles said teaching is in her blood and is something she always has wanted to do.
“My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a teacher and after the Merchant Marines, my dad was a chief engineer at Maine Maritime Academy,” she said. “I always knew. In high school I was in the Future Teachers of America Club.”
Knowles graduated from the University of Maine in 1968 and did her student teaching at the Mary Snow School in Bangor, where she worked as a substitute teacher before accepting the teaching job in Holden. She earned her master’s degree in literature from UMaine in 1972.
To say things have changed over the last four decades is an understatement.
She has gone from using a black chalkboard and white chalk to using computers and other modern technologies in the classroom.
“I have to be an entertainer because of computers and TV,” she said. “Now, their brains are forming differently so you have to adapt and change with all that.”
Unlike students from 40 years ago, most students nowadays come to school already knowing their ABCs and 1-2-3s so her job has changed over the years to align with the abilities of the youngsters, she said.
“Every class that comes through that door is different,” Knowles said. “It’s a fresh start each fall.”
One of the biggest changes is discipline. In the beginning of her teaching career she was allowed to spank students.
A former student, his wife and three children, recently stopped by the school and reminded Knowles of the time he misbehaved in her classroom as a boy.
He recently had moved to Holden from New Jersey, was behaving badly and was warned that a spanking was coming.
With his hands defiantly on his hips, “He said, ‘You can’t spank me. I have a black belt in karate,’” Knowles recalled.
The youngster was taken to the classroom next door and given a spanking and afterward his entire outlook changed, she said. During his recent visit, she asked him why he had such a good turnaround, and he told her, “When you got done, you told me you loved me.”
Knowles has a reputation with the students as a strict teacher, handed down from big sisters and brothers, so the students who enter her classroom each fall know what is in store for them.
“I have high expectations for my children and I’m strict when I have to be,” she said. “They have to know you love them but also that there are boundaries.”
With all the changes in how teachers and students are assessed, Knowles said she has learned that test results don’t always tell the whole story and then there is more than one way to educate youth.
“My passion — I found out — is science and social studies,” she said. “You can teach all the reading and writing you want through specialized units.”
Knowles has taught second grade for so long that some of the students she has are grandchildren of her former students.
“I’m having the third generation,” she said. “I’m not hanging around for the next one.”
Superintendent David Anderson, who also is principal at Holden School, did a little math about how many student Knowles has helped mold over the last four-plus decades.
“I figured out that she’s probably had in the neighborhood of 800 students and 7,525 teaching days,” he said. “She is one of those rare teachers who embodies everything you want in a teacher.”
Anderson and the staff at the school hosted a surprise gathering for Knowles on Tuesday that included teachers from all over the district, school board members and some of her former students. Afterward, an engraved brick that bears her name was dedicated and placed under a weeping cherry tree planted at the front of the school.
“The demands you made and the standards you set have helped make us what we are today. Thank you for 43 years,” the brick reads.
“Joy is a great name for her,” Anderson said. “She teaches with a smile.”
While Knowles is retiring from the second grade teaching post, she will continue on as the Gifted and Talented coordinator and has offered to be a substitute teacher.
Knowles said once she’s retired she is sure her husband, Galen, will be happy she doesn’t spend her nights grading papers or picking up roadkill to bring into her classroom.
“My husband says I spend more time here at school than at home,” she said, a smile crossing her face. “This is my home away from home.”
She went on to say that her husband of 35 years “is so supportive. I have roped him into doing a lot of things for education” over the years.
Her retirement plans include spending more time in her garden at her camp and with a fishing pole in her hands. She also plans to travel more and as a 21-year breast cancer survivor to become involved again with the Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure.
Over the years, Knowles has received a number of accolades and was instrumental in creating the Holden Community Learning Nature Trails, located behind the Holden Elementary School, with retired teacher Jan Washburn.
“I don’t know of any other job — maybe nurse — that is as rewarding,” she said.