With over a hundred years of teaching the community’s children, Kahera:waks Carol Boyer Jacobs, Katsi’tsorónkwas Judy Jacobs, and Onwá:ri Grace Goodleaf closed their final textbooks and called it a career at Karonhianónhnha. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)
As at Kahnawake Survival School, Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa said goodbye to some of its cherished staff this year as Kahera:waks Carol Boyer Jacobs, Katsi’tsorónkwas Judy Jacobs, and Onwá:ri Grace Goodleaf decided it was time to exit the classroom and enter retirement.
Combined, the three women represent over 110 years of educating elementary students in Kahnawake.
From the farm to the classroom
Onwá:ri Grace Goodleaf has been a first language Kanien’kéha speaker since birth, didn’t learn English until school, and taught at the Karonhianónhnha so long she remembers when her boss was her student.
“I taught our vice principal (Kanerahtanónhnha Jacobs),” said Goodleaf. “I’ve been there that long.”
Goodleaf was asked to help out at the school originally in the traditional studies class, and worked as a teacher’s assistant in the language department before working as a subject teacher.
Growing up on a farm in the Route 207 area, Goodleaf’s entire family spoke Kanien’kéha.
“We lived in the country,” said the 79-year-old great-grandmother. “There was nobody else living around us, so that’s all we spoke.”
Goodleaf, unlike the students she taught, went to a one-room schoolhouse on Route 207 with 14 other students aged six to 14. It was there that she was introduced to her second and third languages.
“That was the only time we were introduced to the English language,” she said. “The teacher spoke French to us.”
Brief stints at Kateri School as a Grade 6 teacher and a kindergarten teacher were the exception, and Goodleaf always went back to Karonhianónhnha, where she eventually settled, and thoroughly enjoyed her time.
“It’s not always a bed of roses, it has challenging moments, but the kids are wonderful, and I tried to teach only younger grades because they’re easier to mould at that level,” said Goodleaf.
One thing that stands out as pure joy for Goodleaf is seeing her lessons’ affect on students.
“It’s so rewarding when you hear a child speaking, even one word it’s fantastic,” said Goodleaf.
Goodleaf said students today have a tougher time engaging with the language than when she began teaching due to the language’s decline among parents.
“They were, in the past, more excited to learn than they are now,” she said. “Because there were more people at home speaking it, so they had more help.”
The young lady turns 80 next month, and taught one year longer than she originally planned.
“I wanted to retire last year, but I had two great-grandchildren going to school, and I encouraged them to go to Karonhianónhnha School, so I could get them started,” said Goodleaf. “Now I’m done.”
Goodleaf, whose husband Harold died 30 years ago, is looking forward to spending time with her children (Lewis and Kelly), grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She had some final words of advice for young people considering a teaching career.
“Think very carefully before you do it, and make sure that when you start, you continue because it is rewarding despite of the fact that we come home and want to pull out our hair,” said Goodleaf. “It is very rewarding, but it’s also a lot of hard work… When a child comes to you and says something in Kanien’kéha, you know you’ve done your job well.”
Classroom door closes early
Kahera:waks Carol Boyer Jacobs’ final class was January 29, 2017. This was not the date the young 60-year-old English teacher planned on being her last, but other circumstances determined her final day at school.
“I had a second cancer, so I had surgery at that time, and thought I would be off for a couple of months, but then when I went to meet with the doctor, I had no idea I was going to be doing five months of chemo and a month of radiation,” said Boyer Jacobs.
Last year, her doctor told her to take more time off.
“As time went on, I said, ‘I need to start taking care of myself,’” she said. “With that in mind, I said, I’ll just retire now.”
Boyer Jacobs loved her students, her job, the classroom, and seeing those that left her Grade 6 class thrive later in life.
“I am very happy and proud to see that some of my former students are now successful adults in various fields such as principal and vice principal at Karonhianónhnha School, band council chief, Tewa manager, environment manager, civil engineer, teachers in all three schools to name a few,” she said.
Boyer Jacobs admitted that having her retirement date chosen for her was not an easy thing to accept.
“It was difficult because I never had a date set in mind when I would retire,” she said. “I really enjoyed what I did. I loved the children, they’re our leaders of the future in our community, so I had an investment in them.”
Her students visited the hospital and her house while she was in treatment dropping of gifts, cards, and showing they cared about their teacher.
“It was surprising. That year, three of the kids did their science projects on cancer,” she said. “A little girl came by one day with a stuffed elephant. Her mother said she was waiting outside to see you. She was afraid to go in. It touches the heart.”
Though she didn’t choose the date, she knows leaving the classroom was the right thing to do.
“There was a reason why I retired because now I have a family that is going through their own challenges, and I’m there for them,” she said.
Boyer Jacobs remains humble about her role as a teacher, and knows that having an older mind than the students does not mean there is nothing to be learned from those who are shorter.
“They’re so smart nowadays. They’re so knowledgeable about so many things, it’s incredible,” she said. “As teachers, we think we know everything. Well, we don’t. We’re constantly learning and we learn so much from the kids. They have so much information and so much general knowledge.”
Though not in the class anymore, she still regularly feels the effect she had on her students, who are never shy to show how much they appreciated their teacher.
“When they see me, they come up and embrace me and you know you had some impact on them,” said Boyer Jacobs.
Never a boring day
Katsi’tsorónkwas Judy Jacobs has seen every age, and just about every type of student in her 34 years teaching at the school
“I’ve been all over. I’ve taught nursery all the way up to Grade 6,” she said. “I’ve basically done everything that I wanted to do. It’s been quite an experience.”
She started working at Karonhianónhnha in 1983 in the Kanien’kéha curriculum department, and got the itch to teach. She then took teacher training at McGill University, completed her teaching certificate and then Bachelor’s degree.
She worked as associate principal for three years part time in addition to teaching, which put her in a unique position sometimes.
“Which is funny because most of the kids that would come to see me were the kids that I was teaching,” said Jacobs with a laugh.
The high-stress administrative job was not for her, so Jacobs applied for the next teaching job available.
Jacobs always knew her place was at the front of the class.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I remember being at home and my friends would come over and we’d sit on the stairs, and I was always the teacher.”
Like her two colleagues, Jacobs found teaching a continuous adventure with multiple rewards.
“It’s rewarding because it’s never the same. Every day is different. Even though you’re teaching year-after-year the same contents, with the students, every day is different,” she said.
A class of 17 or 18 students has an equal number of diverse personalities, abilities and temperaments, and it is an environment that is not easily duplicated.
“It’s challenging,” she said. “You can’t say it’s ever boring.”
When teaching elementary students, teachers often become a second parent or grandparent to students. Jacobs said her students would often call her ista.
“They end up looking at you as their mother, and then they’d start calling me grandma,” she said.
The young-at-heart 61-year-old teacher said her students would not believe her age, and were not ready to let her go.
“They didn’t want me to retire. It was so funny because they kept saying I was 29,” said Jacobs. “They just can’t believe. They’ll look at you and say, ‘you’re not that old,’ and they really care.”
Towards the end of last year, Jacobs realized this year would be her last.
“There are a lot of changes, a lot of things happening, and it’s going to be so totally different, and a lot of my co-workers have gone, and it’s a whole new generation of people coming in, which is great, but it’s just time,” said Jacobs. “I just felt that it’s time now. I’m still healthy, and while I’m still healthy I can do things.”
The fact that she will not be returning to school next year has not truly hit Jacobs yet.
“I think I’ll only feel totally retired once my co-workers go back to work,” she said. “I can’t really say how I’m going to feel yet.”
Looking back, she has no regrets on her choice of career path.
“I’ve enjoyed every day. I loved my job,” she said.