The First-Person Project

Chris Demers ’89

Concord, NH

Assessment Coordinator, Concord School District

Major: Elementary Education

Minor: English

The spring semester of my senior year in high school, the guidance counselor handed me a little square of paper. On it, he’d written “Four-year scholarship, Keene State.” He had received a phone message from someone at the college saying they were going to offer me this, and I was floored. I remember my mom picked me up from school that day – I went to an all-male Catholic school in Nashua, New Hampshire, the city next to Hudson, where we lived. I told her about the scholarship and she broke down crying. She had to pull off the side of the road. I don’t know what their plan was in terms of paying for college, and this seemed like a great relief to her. So it was a done deal.

In my immediate family, I was the first to go to college. I enrolled with the intent of getting a psychology degree. I did take a psychology class first semester, but I considered Keene State’s history and reputation as a teaching school, and knew that I’d always gravitated toward kids. So education became the career path.

Elementary ed was a great program. I was nervous, certainly, about teaching. I remember the first time I was in a classroom and the teacher turned the reins over to me. I came in with all these grandiose ideas for teaching space to the second-graders. I had designed the unit in my Methods course. I was watching this veteran teacher, and then suddenly it was my turn, and it was difficult, really nerve-wracking.

A year later I did my student teaching. I started out in a readiness class, which is pre-K. It was an election year, and I was going to teach them about presidents. I had these grand plans. We sat down and watched the inauguration, and here I am trying to narrate for them what’s going on. These guys are five. One of them is running around on top of the tables. To the credit of the supervising teacher, she let me do my thing, probably thinking, Oh, this guy’s got a lot to learn. Then I switched and taught fifth grade, which felt much more comfortable to me, though I certainly didn’t do it justice as a student teacher. Fifth grade continues to be where my heart resides. It’s my favorite grade.

Fifth grade is a magical time. The students still have that elementary mindset where the teacher is the all-knowing omnipotent one, at least early in the year. Then they start to challenge that a little bit, which I love, because they’re at the end of their elementary career, middle school is on the horizon, their bodies are doing all sorts of weird things. Suddenly they’re seeing their peers in different ways as hormones start to kick in, and all the while you’re trying to keep them focused on academics. And they’re sizing some really cool independence. It’s the time where they’re moving away from the literal to the abstract. They’re trying some things out in terms of what it means to be an independent thinker, and it’s a great time to help them build that foundation to do all that in a safe and responsible way.

The last time I taught fifth grade, a few years ago, we sat in the middle of the room on the last day of school and everybody, myself included, was bawling. Because we had taken this journey together, and had built a tight relationship as a group, and it was just amazing. What I’ve figured out, since my student teaching days, is that it’s really about relationship building. The content’s important, obviously, but kids, they want to know that you’re listening and they want to know that you value them. If you can do that, you can get them to do anything.

So after I graduated from Keene State, I got a job teaching third grade at the elementary school I’d attended in Hudson. It was a little weird, teaching where I’d gone to school, but also kind of neat. Those were formative years.

I taught there nine years and was starting to feel itchy to do something else. Over the course of my time in Hudson, I’d started getting more involved with science. I got hooked up with a National Science Foundation grant-funded program for teachers, which gave me a chance to really dig into science. I’d won the Presidential Award for Elementary Science Teaching, and that led to a job running a science program in the Concord School District. It was perfect for me, a chance to do just K through five science, both teaching and curriculum work. It was also convenient, as my wife, Paula, and I were living in Concord by then, and our daughter Katharine had just been born. The job was awesome, teaching science all day. The kids were bused to our facility out on Clinton Street, and we would walk through the wetlands, pretend to be penguins, do simple physics experiments and such, chemistry with kindergarteners.

After three years of that, the superintendent wanted to try out a new position, an assessment coordinator. This was 2001. She said, Write up a job description for that. So I did. I was starting to get a little burned out from the science program, because I was essentially teaching the same lesson to 20 classes. Also, I couldn’t build the relationships I wanted to with kids, because I was seeing 2,000 kids.

Here I am thinking, when I became a teacher, I was only going to be a classroom teacher. Now I’ve done two things and I’m being given a chance to do a third. So I’ll give it a shot. I took the assessment coordinator position. The job is about helping to facilitate state and local testing – helping school teams make sense of the results. It’s important work, but it’s not teaching. So I’d quietly sneak in a little teaching on the side, offering to work with a class once a week during my lunch hour.

Still, every year when I met with my superintendent for my annual growth plan meeting, I would whine about how I missed teaching. After six years she got tired of hearing that, and suggested I take a leave of absence and take an open fifth-grade position at the school next door. It was a huge gift. A colleague took my assessment guy job for a year, and I taught fifth grade. It was an absolute dream class. Teaching for a year gave me that shot in the arm that I needed. Then the district needed some temporary assistant principals to fill in the gap while elementary schools were being combined into new buildings, so I worked as an assistant principal for four years. I learned a new skill set, I got a taste of administration, and I now know for sure it’s not for me.

Next, I had another chance to try something different. The district had a good-sized budget to buy technology to infuse into the new buildings, including iPads for every kiddo. They created media tech teaching positions at each of the new elementary buildings. I got that job, which was awesome, because it was about teaching. I spent a year getting kids and teachers used to using technology. Then I had to make a decision. My daughter was starting to think about college, and I had to consider salary, so I went back and have been doing assessment again for the last two years.

When I’m not working, I’m very involved in local community theatre. I have my wife, Paula, to thank for that – she was a theatre arts minor at Keene State. Early in our marriage we lived in Nashua, and she talked me into auditioning for the Nashua ActorSingers. I did poorly in the audition, but the director cast me for a small part. Since then, I’ve gotten better. I was eventually given the lead role in a play, and that was the game-changer for me. I needed someone to have confidence in me. The director shepherded me through it. Since then it’s been great; it’s something our family can do together. We’re very involved with the Concord Community Players.

The more theatre stuff I do, the more theatrical I get in the classroom. Teachers have a lot to compete with when it comes to getting a child’s attention. I’ll go back to teaching, I think. I’ve always fancied myself teaching at the college level. I was an adjunct at UNH Manchester for a couple of years and I enjoyed that. So when I retire and need to come up with a second career, I might try that. Teaching adults is not the same as teaching kids, but it’s a nice challenge for different reasons.

I feel really fortunate that I’ve had a chance to do as many different things as I have. I chalk it up to this professional ADD of sorts, where every four or five years, I’m like, OK, why don’t I try something else? I’ve been lucky to have been given the chances to do it, and to be able to keep cycling back to teaching kids. Of all the things I’ve done, it’s still the hardest job. It’s the one that I lose the most sleep over, but it’s also the one that gives me the best reward. I didn’t walk out of any day as assistant principal or assessment coordinator with the same kind of high that I get when I’ve made the connection with a kid. I think that’s everything.