EHS teacher named best in Vermont

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Linda Cloutier-Namdar, donning spirit week attire, addresses her multicultural literature class of juniors and seniors last Friday. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Linda Cloutier-Namdar exhibits traits one would expect from a renowned teacher: a passion for learning, unbridled enthusiasm and a belief students can achieve greatness if only given opportunity — and a nudge in the right direction.

“I have felt lucky every single day that I come here,” Essex High School English teacher Cloutier-Namdar said. “I love my job. I love teaching.”

Though statements like those seem predictable from Vermont’s newest teacher of the year, a designation Cloutier-Namdar earned earlier this month, her road to the classroom — and back to it again — carries a bit more surprise.

That’s because at one point in her life, she swore she’d never be a teacher.

Heading off to college, Cloutier-Namdar dreamed of composing the next great American novel or mining a beat as a newspaper reporter, until she dropped out her junior year to marry her husband.

Still, when Cloutier-Namdar returned to school, she figured she would try to make her passion for literature useful, so she reluctantly embarked down the path of education.

“The first day I walked into the classroom, it was like a lightning bolt,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’”

And that’s what she did, at least for a while, starting off her teaching career at nearby Colchester High School. She taught there for six years before she gave birth to her second child. From there, she worked several part-time jobs — some with high school students and once editing a quarterly newspaper — so she could be home during the day , though thoughts of the classroom never drifted far.

Then, just as her daughter left for college 12 years ago, a position opened at EHS. As they say, the rest is history, though the bibliophile would likely prefer a less clichéd summation. In her words, returning to the classroom just felt right.

“I feel it’s my calling,” she said, “a talent or a skill I have that I can actually contribute toward making the world a better place.”

Much had changed during Cloutier-Namdar’s two decades away from education. For starters, gradebooks filled out by hand are mostly relegated to desk drawers in lieu of quicker, more accurate online grading systems, which allow struggling students and their parents to instantly track progress.

Even the simple act of emailing with students seemed foreign at first, though now she appreciates how easy it is for parents to remain involved in their children’s’ learning.

Some facets of the job never change, at least in a quantifiable sense. Take “Romeo and Juliet,” a tale, although hundreds of years old, remains as relevant today as it’s ever been, especially for 14- and 15-year-olds.

It’s an age that allows Cloutier-Namdar to mold skills that will prove useful in high school and beyond, she said, like how to be organized or take advantage of opportunities.

Often, that involves pushing students to realize education is “not being done to them,” Cloutier-Namdar said.

“It’s what they choose to do to grow their own skills with the support of teachers,” she continued. “If they’re working hard, they’re going to see growth and progress much more easily than if they’re just coasting on their native intelligence.”

The approach doesn’t work on every student. Cloutier-Namdar recalled one boy she taught both as a freshman and senior, at which time he had “checked out,” she said. Despite her efforts, he eventually dropped her class before leaving school completely.

Even now, memories of those tougher conversations find Cloutier-Namdar wiping away unexpected tears, though a few years ago, the student emailed her to say he enrolled in college and thanked her for believing in him more than he believed in himself.

Cloutier-Namdar said she attempts to inspire this determination among her students through reading.

“In these times, we’re all seeking meaning, and we are trying to see ourselves in the world around us,” Cloutier-Namdar said. “We want to see that there’s some hope. I think one place that students can find that is through literature.”

She assigns her students biographies or autobiographies and asks them to identify ways the stories of others relate to their own lives.

“We want students to be able to feel like they are the heroes of their own adventures,” she said.

Ask others, however, and it seems Cloutier-Namdar has some powers of her own.

“Linda is a superhero, and we are very proud of her,” superintendent Beth Cobb said in a statement. “I guarantee Linda will represent Vermont educators well as she fulfills the duties that come with this great honor.”

Cloutier-Namdar’s tenure begins January 1. She will visit schools statewide, work with teachers and represent Vermont during the national teacher of the year search. She will also travel to Washington, D.C. this spring for a reception at the White House.

The first stop of the journey comes when the Vt. Agency of Education will present her award this Thursday at the University of Vermont.

Pictures will show a beaming Cloutier-Namdar graciously accepting her award. But just like the stories she has led so many students through over her career, the photos will hide a deeper meaning, she said.

“What it feels like to me,” she said, “is that it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle — one of those pictures you can see on a wall, but when you get closer you realize there’s pictures of everybody else.”