For more than a decade, Falmouth High School early education teacher Nancy E. Fitzgerald has devoted herself to a job for which she never applied.
Ms. Fitzgerald was teaching both kindergarten and college classes on early childhood education in Framingham, commuting from Falmouth where she and her husband had bought a house. It was the year the Falmouth School District initiated all-day kindergarten.
She read in the paper that some Falmouth parents were in an uproar about the new all-day kindergarten because they believed it would be too much for the students.
Ms. Fitzgerald volunteered to help.
“I told them I’ve been doing this for years,” she said. “Maybe I could help by talking with the parents.”
That led to a call from the high school principal asking her to come in to interview for the job of running the high school preschool and internship program. Her credentials were a perfect fit, he told her.
“I told him I wasn’t looking for a job,” Ms. Fitzgerald said as she sat on the porch of her East Falmouth home this week.
When the woman who held the job at the time followed up by asking her to “just come see” about the position, Ms. Fitzgerald agreed. And the rest is history.
The last door at the back of Falmouth High School leads to a wing of the building that houses the high school preschool program. It consists of a classroom, an office, the preschool room with a private bathroom for the preschool children, and an observation room.
This wing, where high school students study early childhood education through course work and as aides in the preschool, has been Ms. Fitzgerald’s domain for the last 15 years.
“It is a beautiful facility,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “It’s the best in Falmouth.”
Falmouth High School sophomores who take Ms. Fitzgerald’s Child Growth and Development class and have high enough grades can apply to become a child care aide in the preschool as a junior, and a child care intern in grades K-3 at an area elementary school as a senior.
During the Child Growth and Development course students study all aspects of child development, from conception through adolescence.
Part of the curriculum requires that students take a doll home over one night. The doll has been computer programmed to cry at certain intervals, to give the students a taste of caring for an infant through the night.
For preschool aides and elementary school interns, the study becomes on-the-job learning.
“They learn how to teach, to prepare lessons, write reflections, do observations, and discuss it all in teaching teams of four to five people where they have to critique one another,” Ms. Fitzgerald said of her high school students.
Each student aide is given one preschool child to observe for the entire school year, to see how that child grows.
By senior year, Ms. Fitzgerald said, “there is a transformation. They become so responsible. They have to get to their internships at the elementary schools, and be there by themselves without a team in a classroom with one teacher.”
After three years in the program, seniors earn an Early Childhood Education and Care certificate, which qualifies them to teach in preschools or daycare centers and gives them one course credit at any community college in the state. If they go on to college, they can get jobs at the college’s preschool and daycare programs.
“People are desperate for early childhood teachers in Massachusetts,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “There are not enough qualified teachers.”
Ms. Fitzgerald is a proponent of community volunteer work. She helped with the high school’s Cultural Awareness Club, holiday food drives, and the farm-to-table program that features the gardens at the back of the school.
She has volunteered to teach parenting classes run by the Falmouth Coalition for Children and for 15 years has been on the board of directors of the suicide prevention organization Samaritans, where she helps raise money for its programs.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Fitzgerald requires that her junior and senior students also do 10 to 20 community volunteer hours each year. Many go on to do more.
“They volunteer to help with childcare during parenting classes, during after-school programs such as the “fresh market” program run by the Falmouth Service Center, and during school parent nights, for example. And I have them help set up the bocce courts for the Samaritans annual tournament,” she said.
“This teaches them to give back to their communities, and they will do this the rest of their lives.”
“I’ve had some high school kids who were phenomenal teachers,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “Even if they don’t go on to become teachers, they will be great parents because they have learned so much.”
Ms. Fitzgerald said that while some of her former students have entered professions other than teaching, they tend to “lean toward working with people in some form.” Even when they go into the business world, she said, they will go into businesses that help people.
Ms. Fitzgerald grew up the youngest of 10 children on a dairy farm in Holliston.
“We were dirt poor,” she said, “but it was a great life growing up. It was a different lifestyle—easier.”
Her “dear aunt” was a 2nd grade teacher in town, and the inspiration for Ms. Fitzgerald’s own career. “She invited me into her classroom to read to her students, and I knew right then that I wanted to be like my aunt,” she said.
“I have taught for 47 years, from preschool to college,” she said. “It has been a lifetime, and I have loved every minute of teaching. Whatever, and wherever I was teaching, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
The feeling between Ms. Fitzgerald and her students is mutual, Falmouth High School Principal Mary W. Gans said.
“She has an innate ability to develop a relationship with every student who crosses her path,” Ms. Gans said. “Her institutional knowledge of how to teach early childhood development to high school students is awesome. I have never heard any student say anything but glowing, positive comments about her. She goes above and beyond when it comes to her kids.”
Former Falmouth High School colleague Margaret A. Verdi referred to Ms. Fitzgerald as “a natural born teacher who touches the lives of students, families and co-workers with her wisdom, patience and smile that brightens every room.”
The bond between Ms. Fitzgerald and her students is evidenced in the stories of high school students she taught in the preschool who come back to teach in the preschool as aides, and her former high school students who now teach in Falmouth and take her current interns into their classrooms. “It’s cool,” she said.
This spring, like all teachers, Ms. Fitzgerald worked with her students via Zoom, Google Classroom and emails. The preschool aides continued to make lesson plans for the preschool students. The plans were emailed to parents. The senior interns worked with the elementary teachers to connect with students by Zoom and work on projects.
“COVID-19 has been particularly hard on the hands-on programs of the Career Vocational Technical Education Department, which are difficult to teach on-line,” she said.
“So many kids need these programs; they are in such high demand. They are all elective classes, but the classes are full,” she said.
Fifty-four students filled to capacity Ms. Fitzgerald’s two early childhood development classes this year. Seventy students are hoping to get into them next year.
“With social distancing rules you would be lucky to get 15 kids in a class. How do you make that work for students in those programs?” she said.
Ms. Fitzgerald has told the school system she will help figure out logistics for next year. “A lot goes into the program now,” she said. “I don’t want to leave anyone stranded.”
Ms. Fitzgerald normally has a big end-of-year cookout for her student aides and interns where she gives a copy of Dr. Seuss’s book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” and a letter she has written to each senior. The seniors then read the book out loud, each taking one page to read.
“I can’t have the cookout this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “but I’m hoping maybe later in the summer I’ll have one for just the interns; they are desperate to have the cookout.”
“We have become friends,” Ms. Gans said of Ms. Fitzgerald. “I have a special place in my heart for Nancy, and her husband Kevin. We’re going to miss her terribly. It’s a huge loss.”
“People ask me why I’m retiring,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “I’m 69 years old. It’s time.”