FRAMINGHAM – After 34 years teaching at Dunning Elementary School, Colleen Gazard was searching for a sign that she was ready to retire.
It came last fall.
Isaac Ouellette, an 8-year-old boy who moved to Framingham from Los Angeles, is among her second-graders this year. Isaac is a coincidental bookend to her decades-long teaching career. Back in 1988, her first year at the school, she had taught his father, Michael Ouellette.
“It just came full circle for me,” said Gazard, who lives in Ashland. “And I said, ‘OK, it’s my time.'”
Michael Ouellette, now 40, grew up in Framingham and also went to Walsh Middle School and Framingham High School. He later moved to California to work in film and television, before returning to Massachusetts for a position at Boston University.
When he learned his son’s classroom placement, he said the name was familiar but could not place it, as he’d known Gazard by her maiden name then.
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“It didn’t click at first,” said Ouellette. “But, every time I thought about it, it was so familiar.”
The djà vu sparked some online detective work that conjured up an old newspaper photo of Gazard. Ouellette recognized her as his first-grade teacher and brought up the connection during their first parent-teacher conference in October.
“I said, ‘Michael, you haven’t changed,'” said Gazard. “Your face is the same.”
Time in education
Gazard knew she wanted to be a teacher from a young age. She used to “play school” as a second grader.
“My dream came true,” she said.
In 1988, Gazard was halfway through her second year as a Title I teacher at McCarthy Elementary School, working on math and reading with economically disadvantaged students. That January, she got a phone call asking if she might be interested in serving as a long-term substitute teacher for a first-grade class at Dunning.
She began right away and fell in love with the school, calling it a “perfect fit.” Two days before her wedding, Gazard had a successful job interview for a full-time position starting the following year.
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She remembers Michael Ouellette as a quiet, hardworking kid who loved to write. Similarly, Isaac is a great writer and can be “quiet in the same way,” said Gazard. Isaac is a little more animated and “loves sharing his knowledge about everything.”
When Gazard started her career, first-grade curriculum centered on reading, penmanship, phonics and math. Today, it’s more complex and tackles a variety of different subjects.
“(They) go through a lot in a day,” said Gazard. “We have some emotional learning lessons, we do phonics and reading and writing and math.”
From the vantage point of a teacher, Gazard has watched technology burrow its way into the classroom. The year after she had Michael Ouellette as a student, she came back from vacation to find a big boxy computer sitting on her desk.
“’Well, how do I turn it on? And how do I use it? ‘”Gazard recalled thinking, before turning to Isaac. “And now look – you’re better at computers than I ever was when I was your age.”
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Education has also become more inclusive over the years, she said.
Some students enter her classroom with few English skills and, by the end of the year, can carry on a conversation with her.
The school’s autism spectrum disorder program, which brings children with autism into her classroom, is “very special to (her) heart.”
“We’re learning so much from everybody,” said Gazard.
Lessons from pandemic-era teaching
Gazard said she often hears parents of the children she taught in the 2019-20 school year say they feel they and their children were “robbed” of a full year of memories. On March 11, 2020, in-person learning in Framingham shut down due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was such a great year and then, all of a sudden, it was over,” said Gazard.
She was one of a few teachers who taught from her classroom during remote learning, saying “this is my element.” When all students came back to school for full in-person learning this past fall, she witnessed some kids struggling with socializing or adjusting to a daily routine.
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Now, with summer break nearing, Gazard said every single child has made “huge growth.” She sees children now able to talk through and solve social problems every day.
“But I will tell you – this year, these kids have come back and they have worked so hard to fill in the gaps that were created,” said Gazard. “They’re amazing, the reading is amazing, the writing, the math.”
Advice for younger teachers
Her advice to new teachers at the start of their careers: “Know when to ask for help.”
Her first year at Dunning, Gazard said she remembers not seeking support from colleagues or administrators because “I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t do it.”
“Now we ask for help all the time,” said Gazard. “And that’s normal, that’s OK. It’s healthy. ”
Newly minted teachers should also not be afraid to make mistakes. In her decades-long career, Gazard said she “learned because (she) made a lot of mistakes.”
Forging strong ties with students and families will improve learning, she said.
“You need to know their story in order to really teach them in an individualized way,” said Gazard. “So create bonds with your families, create bonds with the kids, and just be there for them – give them all the support because that’s what teachers do.”
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As the school year nears its end, Gazard has been putting aside items and books for her daughter, who spent two years working in Dunning’s autism program and plans to enter education.
“I’m packing up a lot of things for her,” said Gazard.
After that October parent-teacher conference with the Ouellettes, she recalls getting into her car and calling another teacher, saying, “You’re never going to believe this.”
Saying it “just brings so much meaning,” she said she’s “told everybody” and often asks Isaac Ouellette if he’s tired of the story yet.
“Why would I be tired of hearing something special?” replied Isaac.