Published in the Brattleboro Reformer, August 18, 2018
BRATTLEBORO — It was a hurricane that brought Susan Heimer to the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, but it was her love of working with children and families that kept her there for the last 22 years.
Heimer said she had been teaching in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands when Hurricane Marilyn destroyed part of her house in 1995 and left her without electricity, phone service or running water for three months. Her brother, Mark Hutchins, chief engineer at Brattleboro radio station WKVT at the time, helped her get settled.
Heimer had lived in the Virgin Islands for 15 years. Before teaching, she had worked as a travel agent for 10 years.
“I saw the world,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Marisa Duncan-Holley, who was director of Winston Prouty at the time, was looking for qualified and experienced teachers when Heimer got to town. Duncan-Holley is now the director of special education at the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
“I was hired right off the bat,” said Heimer, who had just passed the accreditation process for the National Association for the Education of Young Children and helped Winston Prouty complete that same process, which she described as arduous.
In the classroom
Heimer still has memories of her first students at Winston Prouty.
“Of course I remember that class,” she said. “You remember all your kids.”
She said the parents and families are just as important in some ways as the children — a sentiment shared among Winston Prouty staff as they try to develop a home-school connection. In 2016, the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development was renamed to include the words “and family development” at its end.
Heimer said the center’s dedicated and hardworking staff have always been its strength. The founding mission to provide services to children with special need was expanded to reach more kids. The Family Infant Toddler Project was later renamed Children’s Integrated Services.
Like Winston Prouty’s current Executive Director Chloe Learey, Heimer has strong feelings about improving wages for those in the early education field.
“Teaching toddlers is one of the most important things you can do,” said Heimer.
She said she found her work with families “incredibly meaningful” as she got to be one of the few people outside of family members who intimately knew about their journeys raising their children.
“Toddlers are some of the most delightful people you will ever meet, but you have to be ‘on’ with them at all times,” she wrote in a reflection on her career. “Health, safety and ‘maintenance’ tasks play a huge part in the care of these little beings, and a good teacher is also always thinking of ways to improve the learning experience to introduce new materials and oral and gross motor experiences while providing affection and sticking to safe familiar comforting routines.”
Working with younger children is more than just “babysitting,” Heimer said, as research on brain development is proving that this group of students is in one of the most crucial ages in human development. She would help explain to families how behavior may be indicative of different stages and what to anticipate next. She also emphasized how environment plays a big role in a child’s development and said many resources are used to see what would pique their interests.
Home visits get children and parents comfortable with their new teachers while teachers are able to see students in their family interactions. Now, Heimer is seeing public schools doing the same thing.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” she said. “You want your teachers to be partner with the families.”
Learey said Heimer would give parents “very detailed notes” about their children. Learey still holds onto those written about her kids.
“I love writing,” Heimer said. “Every day at nap time, that’s what we’d do. Reflect on what the children had done. It was part of our scaffolding and our records and how we were going to progress.”
She was the teacher who brought All School Sing to Winston Prouty. The idea is to invite family members in and sing with the children.
“My little ones would come back singing the songs all day,” recalled Heimer.
One of her favorite parts of her job, she said, was being able to make music and sing all day long. Also, she went outside each day and got to move around.
Heimer also noticed she was seeing the world from a different perspective. She said there is more mindfulness in children than in adults, “because you tune out the hawks or jets overhead.”
But “it’s not for everybody,” Heimer said. “The rewards are not monetary.”
Learey called Heimer an inspiration to those in the early education field and a leader in recognizing the need for a high quality learning environment for younger children. Heimer said she thinks society will need to subsidize such work in the future, pointing at universal pre-k programs as an example of how thinking has recently evolved.
Heimer was a single mother of two children when she obtained a master’s degree through the University of Vermont.
“It was good modeling for my older children and I learned so much,” she wrote in her reflections. “As part of that program, I organized the 2000 Early Childhood Showcase Tour, an initiative to bring awareness of our work to legislators and the public alike.”
Heimer and her husband Tim Ragle ended up adopting one of her female students and a boy from China.
“We were delighted at how much both children got from the learning experience of being at the center,” she wrote. “Because of my adopted family, I could not learn enough about attachment issues. It was a huge part of my consciousness and at the same time, children in state custody became an even bigger part of our center’s population.”
She became a special services provider, taking on extra workshops each year and helping in crises when needed.
Winston Prouty is hosting an open-house retirement party for Heimer from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Refreshments will be served, stories will be shared and photographs will be displayed.
Part of that celebration, Learey said, will include an announcement about a fund being created in Heimer’s name to provide assistance to young teachers with educational pursuits.
“That’s great,” said Heimer.
She said she will miss having daily interactions with colleagues and families. She admitted to being a little sad.
“The day to day is just so great but I’m also looking forward to a new chapter,” she said. “It’s also intense. It’s a very intense job. You’re like substitute mom for these guys.”
Learey said she wants Heimer to stay connected with Winston Prouty and help with different initiatives.
Ian Kelley, a parent, described Heimer as “wonderful and very kind.”
“Susan was not only had a calming, soothing influence on the kids who came through her classrooms,” Kelley said. “She also had a very calming and soothing influence on the parents.”
Interacting with Heimer after a long and sometimes stressful day, Kelley said, he would be “almost immediately relaxed.”
“As the kids would say, Susan was very chill,” said Kelley.
Karen Hoppe said her family knew the first time she met Heimer that she would be a strong influence on their daughter Meghan’s life.
“Susan has a gift of helping every child feel their worth and explore their own path,” Hoppe said. “Susan’s kind, sweet, humble way of teaching brought so much meaning to those pre-school years for not only Meghan, but every child she has encountered. Susan Heimer is a gem, a true teacher in every sense of the word.”
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.