Natasha Jahrsdoerfer was 58 when she started teaching kindergarten and first and second grade at North Branch School in Avon in 1990. Now she’s 84 and she’s decided its time to find things to do at home.
“I think being with children and young people is very rewarding,” she said. “You keep on your toes. Being a classroom teacher, you have to be ready to fill in gaps and juggle. That keeps one younger and ‘operational’. I love what I do and I’ll miss it tremendously. A little part of me worries about not having school to stay active.”
The daughter of Russian immigrants, raised in New York City, Jahrsdoerfer was an elementary education major at Queens College and began teaching in public schools right out of college in 1953, first in Arlington and next in Charlottesville. She kept teaching until her third child came along (she had four) in 1962 and then she stayed home to raise them. She came back to teaching after her family was grown. She checked out public schools first and decided she didn’t want that.
“It’s so different from when I started,” she remembered. “Then there was no TV really. There were homes and raising kids was happening at homes. Kids had longer attention spans. But, if you’re a good storyteller, you can keep their attention. I tell them now, ‘I’m not a TV. I can tell when you’re being rude.’”
She said she questioned herself about going on teaching. “I get tired now when I didn’t used to. I don’t have the stamina. I want the children to have as much as they can. I’m really delighted that North Branch really doesn’t use computers with children until fifth grade. At the lower levels, it’s not in the class. You have to learn to question and to think and to judge what is true. Just accepting what you are told is not a goal of learning. It’s a little scary to me where we are going with our education system,” she observed. “We need to address—not more money, but the philosophy of education.
“I feel it’s a huge responsibility to work with young minds. It’s important what you say and how you say it. I also respect what the children say and feel. You can’t just be dogmatic.”
Jahrsdoerfer mainly works on reading and math in class, but she also covers art, science, and history and culture topics. Her kids learn about Egypt and Jefferson.
In the summers she usually travels and gardens. In 2009 she drove the Alaska Highway. “Spectacular!” she said. She camped all over Europe for a decade of summers. She liked backpacking and did the Grand Traverse in New Zealand. This summer she’s driving to Utah, timing it so that she’s not anywhere close to school when opening day comes.
“We can learn so much from history and that’s why I love traveling. I went to stand in Domremy where Joan of Arc was.” The thought of it brightened her face still. The place was obviously special to her. “Europe is exciting if you have any historical background.”
“Every year I say, ‘this is the best group I’ve had!’,” she said merrily. “It’s all these wonderful years at North Branch. I love the trust that allows me to be my own person.
“If I have a talent it’s that I’m a good listener and not being judgmental. I think I can accept people.”
Jahrsdoerfer has been a city market vendor, purveying baked goods and rabbits. She keeps a small flock of about 20 sheep on her farm north of White Hall. She kept Horned Dorsets for years and then switched over to Katahdins, the hair sheep, after it became hard to find shearers. Jahrsdoerfer does not watch TV at home, not for 30 years now. “It’s a waste of time. I have too much to do.” She’s a regular at Yoga class.
“I look at the kids and I think, ‘I won’t have you!’” She was sad to say it. “But there is a wonderful teacher coming.
“My advice for a new teacher is: if you don’t love it, don’t do it. You need to love teaching and the joy of working with children is what should bring you to teaching.
“The most important thing when you start out a class is to be firm and strict. Gradually you can loosen up. If you are fair, they learn school is fun and good. It’s like parenting: they don’t need a buddy. It’s really hard to pull a class back from disaster when you don’t start off with a tight ship.
When she came to North Branch she “wasn’t thinking about the future,” she said, “I saw an ad and every year I ask [Head of School] Charlotte [Zinsser Booth] am I still viable.” Yes is still the answer. “She’s the one of the best,” said Zinsser-Booth.
“I love talking with children and hearing their view of life and their wisdom and insight,” said Jahrsdoerfer. “I love books and that’s what I want to give—for them to love reading—and I want to make it as successful as I can for them. I don’t let them get discouraged. I use the old-fashioned rule, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.’
“I feel totally appreciated and recognized at North Branch. I love this school. There’s a feeling when you walk in; it’s good. Our middle schoolers are delightful, the nicest people. They are poised and they know who they are. That age group is so vulnerable. North Branch has lots of contact between older and younger students. They sit together at lunch. It’s a beautiful relationship.”
It’s all been a beautiful relationship. North Branch hosted an open house in her honor May 31 so her scores of students, some now 30 years old, could call on her and thank her.