Nancy Guski on Teaching and Life


When I ran into Nancy Guski at a town of Red Hook meeting last month, she recognized me and called me by name. It had been at least fifteen years since I'd last seen my first-grade teacher. After catching up and telling her about the project I've got going, she kindly agreed to give an interview. The following is a transcription of the interview, which took place Sunday at her home in Red Hook.

WS: When did you first come to this area and what brought you here?

NG: Well, I went to Ithaca College. And, at the time when I graduated in 1962 there were lots of teaching jobs available. Actually, administrators would come to the colleges recruiting. The principals from Rhinebeck and Red Hook and I think the principal from Onteora came out to interview people. So, I was in phys. ed. And someone came to our classroom and said well, they’re here interviewing, does anybody want to go. I said, yeah, sweaty and all. I went to the interview and I talked to Russ Keefe who was the superintendent of schools here. And he said I want you to come and see the school and see what you think.  

And, I was very poor in my senior year of college. My parents were going through a divorce. And, so, I really was pretty poor. My girlfriend also was going to come with me and do some interviews and she had a rickety old car. So, we kind of pooled together enough money to get us here. But we didn’t have enough money to get gas to get us back to Ithaca.

So, I’m in the interview with Russ Keefe—and I think, nowadays this would never wash—because now you go with your little suit and your little portfolio and everything. So, we had the interview, it went well, we had a great chat and he said, well what do you think? I said well, it sounds great. He said, I’m going to go to the school board and recommend that you come. But, he says, I’m looking at you and you look a little bit worried about something.

I said, well I am a little bit—my girlfriend and I, we need to borrow money for gas to get back to Ithaca. So, he laughed and he said, you know what, that was the final convincing thing. So, he lent us money to get back to Ithaca. And, of course, we made sure that we sent the money back to him. And I think nowadays, who would ever get away with that?

That’s how I ended up here.

WS: And, so you started at Red Hook schools?

NG: Yup, I taught just about seven years here, I taught phys. ed. And then I got married, so I wanted to stay home—when I had children I wanted to stay home with them until they started school. So, I stayed home for ten years. And then I went back to graduate school and became certified to teach K-through-6. Because I had done some subbing while I was out and I thought, these little ones are kind of cute—I kind of like these little buzzards. And, you know, I had never thought about teaching little kids; I always thought about high school. But, they were just so adorable. So, I got certified and I applied in Germantown and I didn’t get it the first time. Elaine Howard—we both applied for third grade and she got the job. And, actually I think I got the job because they were so desperate, not because I was so wonderful. They started school with two kindergartens that year. The year that I came. And they got so many kids that they had to divide it up into three classes. So they had to pull kids out of two kindergarten classes and make a third class two weeks after school started—can you imagine the mess? I said, yeah, I’ll take the job. So, they put me upstairs, away from the two kindergartens with Charlie Ramsey across the hall. (laughs) So, I’m like, with little kids, this is not appropriate. So, I’m teaching, I’m working and so then they moved me down to the room across from the office, but the rest of the kindergarten was still way down there. And then finally at the end of the year they moved me down there. That’s where I stayed. That’s where you got stuck with me, Billy. (laughs)

WS: How has Red Hook and this area in general changed or not changed since you first came here?

NG: The school has grown enormously. When I came here in ’62, there was one school. That was the Linden Avenue school. Then they built the elementary school out here. And the year after I was here, they built the high school. The school population exploded, which means that more and more people moved into the area. And, it’s always been a farming community. And for a while that waned a little bit. But, now it’s come full circle and it’s back to smaller farms. We’re surrounded by farms. And I love that part of it because it’s really kind of in our DNA to have farms and we’re by the river and so, I would say it hasn’t changed drastically. Just grown. And kind of kept its, you know I saw Rhinebeck change much more than Red Hook. ’Cause when I first came here, Rhinebeck was this sleepy little town. I would say Red Hook was a bit more lively than Rhinebeck. In the years since, Rhinebeck’s become, well, very yuppie—and Red Hook has kind of kept its sort of simple way. And I kind of like that about it. Not too pretentious, you know? I hope I’m not going on too long—cut me off, get the hook (laughs).

WS: What was your childhood like in Vermont?

NG: Actually, wonderful. I grew up in Springfield, Vermont. It was a very busy town. Because it was a town with a lot of tool and dye-making companies. So it was quite well-off economically, especially during the Second World War. They did a lot. My father worked in the Fellows gear-shaper where they made gears. And I know they were very busy during the war. There were maybe 150 in my graduating class. I had a wonderful time, wonderful friends. I was really a tom-boy. Played baseball and softball and rode my bike all over. I don’t think I ever had a doll. If I did, I don’t know what I did with it. I wasn’t much of a doll girl. And we just knew everybody. I bet I could walk that street that I lived on and still see the same cracks in the sidewalk and you knew every little crack and corner and tree.

Because that was what you did, you walked and you rode your bike. You knew every little piece of your community. Walked to school, never rode the bus. Never remember a snow-day. Never. Had a lot of fun with my friends in high school. It was before the whole drug thing. We didn’t smoke, I never even went to a party where we had beer. I’m not trying to sound like a goody-two-shoes, but it wasn’t there yet. So, you know, our parties were, well we’d dance, play records. We did a lot of skiing. We had a little rope-tow down the street from me and I’d put my skis on and walk down the street and we’d pay a dime and ski all day with that little rope-tow.

People say it was the idyllic fifties, which it really wasn’t because we know what was going on. Really, I didn’t know, ’cause I grew in this little town where there wasn’t one African-American. I didn’t even hear about the holocaust until my freshman year in college. I mean, really? So, it was lovely and idealistic in many ways but there was an undertow, you know, of course the whole civil rights movement was brewing. When I was in college it was certainly brewing and going on. A very difficult time but a very necessary time.

WS: What made you want to become a teacher?

NG: Well, I love the outdoors. I loved playing sports—I was always a little athletic growing up. So, I thought, well, let me teach phys. ed. And I loved my phys. ed. teacher in high school. And it probably wasn’t anything terribly glorious the reason why I picked it but I liked teaching. I’m glad I did it. Because I left still liking it, which is really a great treat for me. I was actually quite proud to have been a teacher. I think it’s a wonderful profession, really. I mean, you could have the most awful day and you’d put one foot in that classroom and those little faces—who loved you no matter what, even if you were a crank that day or whatever you were up to—they’d look at you and give you a hug and you’d go, oh my God, I’m lucky.

WS: What were your guiding philosophies as a teacher?

NG: First of all, I think children need to know that you really like them. And you care about them. And, to me, that is the number one thing. Of course, you have to be skilled and trained well. I think learning should be fun. There are times when it can’t always be. But, to me, I think you learn by doing. By collaborating. You don’t learn by sitting in your seat and not making a sound and never moving. I think children should be able to move and talk and share and I think they learn a lot more that way. That’s the way I tried to run my classroom. I even think when you are crabby or you have a bad day the kids know. I think kids are wonderful judges of character. They know when you don’t mean it. I just tried to be as skillful as I could. Really looking at how kids develop and understanding how development works and fitting your practice into where a kid was, not trying to get them to a place that they’re not ready to get to—otherwise I think you make kids anxious and I think you make it worse. I think that’s the skill in teaching, is to know your kids and know where they are. And know where you need to go from there. Not everybody’s in the same place. So, you have 21 little people in different places. (laughs)

WS: What years did you teach at Germantown?

NG: Ok, I taught there 21 years. I think I came in ’80. I left in 2000, but I had 21 years, so maybe ’79, because I did have 21 years.

WS: What are your thoughts on the new stresses teachers and kids are going through?

NG: Oh, boy. Well, there are things about the core curriculum that I think are fine. What I am against is the excessive testing. You can evaluate children by looking at their work; what they’re reading; what they’re writing. Look at the work that they’re doing and it tells you where they are. And I’m not for any testing before maybe third grade. When we did some testing in first grade—. We did them a couple years when I first was in first grade and I thought, I’m looking at these children looking up at me like, you’re usually working with me and helping me, how come you can’t say a word to me? It was completely foreign to them. And there was no way to really prepare them. And I went home some days so upset because I’d see little tears and they were scared and I’m thinking, what does this accomplish? So, we really fought and got rid of standardized tests in first grade. And we passed on a portfolio—ok, samples of your work from different parts of the year. That told the story right there. I didn’t need to have a test. I’m not saying that some testing is not necessary. But I think we definitely over-test children. And, also, I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to development. Especially in the younger grades. It’s been a complete shift. When I was teaching and you were in school, we paid attention to development. We really tried to make it a rich environment. Not a lot of papers—you know the mimeographed sheets—we tried to use less of that and tried to get kids creating some of their own writing and stuff.

And now the shift has gone completely the other way—it happens in education all the time. I think having fifty percent of the evaluation for teachers being based on these test scores is utterly ridiculous and inappropriate. I don’t think this does anything to help a teacher grow. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s a quick-fix attempt—I’m ready to strangle Cuomo, really. And I voted for him, but I would not vote for him again. Never. And, also, giving a 500-dollar tax break for you to send your child to a private school, I think is wrong. You want to send your child to a private school? Fine. You pay for it. Public school should not be getting drained. We should be working on improving our public schools in an authentic way. It’s what Jefferson said is the great equalizer—I think it was him. Really. But no, I’m not too wild about some of this stuff that’s going on. And Race to the Top; I’m a fan of President Obama, but the race to the top, no, I don’t think—I think competition and races, that’s not about educating kids. Kids bloom at different times. I’m not going to try to squash them before they have a chance to bloom. I’m a fall baby—I know I bloomed later.

WS: Can you tell me a bit about your family.

NG: Well, my husband is retired, he worked for IBM. He’s with his friend right now. They’re planning a trip to Canada. They go there every year fishing. They work all year planning it—shopping and organizing it. I think they like planning it even more than going. And I have two children. My daughter and her husband and my grandson live in Rhinebeck. And he’s fifteen. He’s a really good kid. I like him. ’Course I love him, but I like who he is. He’s very social. He could work a little bit harder in school. But, sometimes if you’re on people too much, you turn them off. And he said, there’s more to school than grades, Grandma. I said, well, yeah, but the grades help a little. And then my son, he works in New York during the week and he lives up on Bingham Mills Road. He and his partner, Ted Saad, they have a big house on the corner there by the bridge.  So, my son is a designer in New York. He works for Quadrille. And Ted is multi-talented, but he is a musician. He was trained as a concert pianist. And he had a production company for quite a long time in New York. Sold it. And now he works up here. So, my son comes home on the weekend. But he’s there during the week. And there’s my wonderful sisters Janet and Sue. We are best friends and have never fought except when we were little.

WS: So, how did Guski Road become Guski Road?

NG: Well, my husband’s family has lived on the road for over 75-80 years. My husband’s grandfather—they came here from Poland. Actually, they escaped. They were driving—it might be his great-grandfather. They were driving on a road with a wagon full of hay. And a wheel broke. And, Poland was partitioned so many times by Russia. So, they were thinking about what they were going to do to fix it. And a couple Russian soldiers came by and kind of laughed at them and made fun of them. And one of them, he picked up a rock and hit one of the Russian soldiers and it actually killed him.

And, so they had to get out of Poland. But, they came the other way. They came across the country—they didn’t come in through Ellis Island. So, then for a while they were in Pennsylvania, in the coal mines, some of them. And then some of them came here. So, they had a farm on the road and also one here.

And then, the next house down was a Guski. Now on the road there’s—not this house, but the next house up is Guskis. We’re Guskis. The man who used to live in this house next to us was my husband’s cousin. He gave us this land for a dollar to build our house. And then the next house down is a Guski. And then, at the very end of the road is another Guski relative. So, that’s what happened, they’ve been here and there’s a lot of us still on this road.

WS: Can you tell me about the Arbor Day tree project?

NG: Sure, well we have a town of Red Hook tree committee that was formed eight years ago—no, 2008. So, I’m the chairman only because no one else wanted to do it. What we’ve tried to do is, first of all, reach out to the community and involve people so they know about us. And our main job is to plant trees. We’ve planted over 350 shrubs and trees in the time that we’ve been a committee. We do it on Arbor Day. We don’t have a big budget. So, we plant maybe about ten trees every Arbor Day. We give out seedlings and saplings free that day. And we do a poster contest at the school. And we have 500 posters. We also have a retired teacher who goes in for three weeks and she runs the poster contest. She has the first-graders read four books about trees and then each first grade plants a tree—a seedling, along the Abigail Botstein Nature Trail. And then she does lessons with all the third grades on the importance of trees and tree biology.

So, we have a little booth where we give out the seedlings that day and we give out information about trees and all the invasive species. And we work with the village tree committee. And we have something in the fall—on Hardscrabble Day—where we have activities for kids and hand out more tree stuff.

WS: You’ve got a really positive demeanor and outlook. What have you found to be the best ways to maintain that?

NG: I guess it’s because, what else can I do? I mean, what good does it do me to mope? I mean, I have my moping days, don’t get me wrong. And I have days where I’m sad and days where I’m upset. But, honestly, I can’t imagine being any other way. I have to be busy. I love to garden. That is a real salvation for me. It’s a very peaceful—there’s this great quote by Mary Sartin that I love, which sort of tells it all. She says, everything that slows us down, and forces patience, and everything that sets us back in the slow cycles of Mother Nature is good. That gardening is an instrument of grace. I thought, yeah, that’s so true. And, I’m learning to play bridge.

I think—you keep going. You keep learning. Yes, you have disappointments and things that don’t go well. But, you know what, you try to get through it and get a little stronger. I think, basically, it’s just my nature. I’m just going to keep going. Keep learning, keep doing. You know, I’ve learned a lot on this tree committee. My gosh, I thought I knew some stuff, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount. So, that’s what works for me.

WS: That’s all I have, but there must be something I didn’t cover.

NG: Oh no, that’s pretty much it. But so, I often wonder—what was your impression of me as a teacher? I often wonder, what do kids really think?

WS: Well, out of all the teachers I ever had, even through college, I think you had the biggest impact.

NG: Oh, thank you, that’s so nice.

WS: There was just tons of positivity and you could tell that you really cared.

NG: Well, that’s good to know… I’ve got to get out my pictures—let’s see if we can find you in this album...