Bryan, Gilchrist retire as a team
When Jenelle Bryan and Cindy Gilchrist sat down to reflect on some career highlights this spring, their thoughts were almost identical.
Perhaps that should come as no surprise, since the third-grade teachers at Hanover Elementary School have worked together for 30-plus years and will enter retirement at the same time.
“It’s like we’re sisters, almost,” said Gilchrist with a laugh.
Bryan spent all 35 years of her career teaching third grade, while Gilchrist’s 32 years began with about a decade at the fourth-grade level before she switched to third.
Though both are from northern Minnesota and have no familial ties to the area, and though neither resided in Hanover itself, they never considered leaving their first professional home.
“I loved the people here right away,” said Gilchrist, who grew up in Hinckley. “They made me feel so welcome and the families were so nice. I’ve never wanted to leave this school.”
Bryan, a Chisolm native, agreed.
“Hanover is special to me,” she said. “Once you get into this school – and the district too, but we’ve only ever been at this school – it just becomes a part of your life. The people here become a part of your family. It’s just not a place you want to leave. There are so many supportive people here and you build these bonds with the staff and parents. It’s a place that you love to come to work.”
When Bryan came to Hanover in 1988 there was a huge surplus in the teaching profession, so jobs were hard to come by. Things weren’t any easier in 1990, when Gilchrist arrived.
“When I started teaching there would be 400 applicants for jobs, so to get noticed was huge,” Gilchrist said.
Neither took their jobs for granted, and neither were counting down the days to the end of their last year either.
“You don’t teach this long if you don’t enjoy it,” said Bryan. “Not that it isn’t tough at times, but you enjoy being with the kids. I’m not keeping track of days and I don’t know that I ever really did. Time flies when you’re here. I truly don’t feel like I’ve been here 35 years at all.”
“I’ve really enjoyed my class this year. It’s a good one to end with,” said Gilchrist. “The kids are the fun part that always keep you coming back. They make you laugh and they’re so literal. People would not believe the things we hear. It just keeps you young at heart.”
Both teachers said their favorite part of their work was forming relationships with the students.
“You get to know them so well by the end of the year that from just a few things written down you know whose paper it was,” said Gilchrist.
“We love having that engagement with them, hearing their stories,” said Bryan. “We know when they have a new pet, when they’re building a fort – we hear about the things that excite them.”
Aside from relationships, both said that classroom story time was always a highlight that allowed them to instill a love of books and reading in their students. They enjoyed Grandparents Day, the Winter Picnic on Valentine’s Day and their traditional roles serving hotdogs at the school picnic.
“It’s fun because everybody goes through the hot dog line, so we see past and present students in the parents and kids,” Bryan said. “We have total turnout for things like that, which is so wonderful.”
Bryan and Gilchrist laughed about watching their names climb the seniority list each school year until finally they were on the first page.
“We were like, ‘We’re on the front page! How can we be in the top few people in the district? We just started here!” Gilchrist said.
“What’s going on here?” Bryan recalled saying with a laugh. “Where are all the old people?”
Now, at the point of their departure, they were asked what advice they would like to share with new teachers.
“Invest in the relationships, because that’s going to be where you get your energy and support from – your relationships with parents, kids, staff and principals,” Gilchrist said. “Another thing is, always assume positive intentions. Of course there will be exceptions, but when you look for positives you’ll find positives, and when you look for the negatives, that’s what you’re going to find.”
Bryan said that a good teacher also considers the perspective of a parent in communicating with families.
“We’re parents, and we would want to know if there were certain things going on at school, good or bad,” she said. “I know what I would want from the teacher of my own children, and that’s the kind of teacher I wanted to be.”
Both commented on the value of strong teamwork with co-workers, and how much they can learn from one another. Another longtime third-grade team member who retired last year, Eileen Schmidt, spent several decades with Bryan and Gilchrist, and her replacement, Whitney Bennett, could vouch for the emphasis Bryan and Gilchrist placed on helping and challenging their peers to constantly improve.
“Both ladies were so welcoming and open!” Bennett said. “They shared resources, their expertise, and provided guidance as I adjusted to a new environment. They went above and beyond to make sure that I felt supported and comfortable in my new role. Whether it was helping prepare activities or sharing how they would tackle a problem, they were so knowledgeable! As a team, we were able to share openly and bounce ideas off each other.”
Hanover Principal Brad Koltes took note of the way the two veterans welcomed in and benefitted from fresh input from a new team member as well.
“They were open to other ideas too,” he said. “It shows that they were willing to grow right to the end of their careers, which is great.”
Much has changed over the past 35 years in the teaching profession. Bryan recalled how, in the early years, a mistake while showing a film would result in the film tape lying in a heap on the floor. There was no Internet, so the incorporation of smartboards, computers and various online learning tools has been a significant shift.
“I think kids nowadays are so much more social,” Gilchrist said. “Kids years ago, I think, were quieter. Kids now know what their interests are in. They voice their opinions. It’s a different world because they have so much more knowledge at their fingertips, so they get excited about things that kids in the past may not have even been exposed to yet. Overall, I think that’s a good thing, but there are times where we need to step back and do that hands-on, slower moving learning, like reading books. You have to find that balance.”
Another shift, especially since COVID began, has been increased emphasis on outdoor learning. Whereas kids in the past may have spent more time outdoors in free play, and a significant number may have come from farming backgrounds, today’s students are more likely to live in neighborhoods. School officials have recognized the value of nature in relieving stress and stimulating learning.
“Sometimes we just go work on math outside on towels underneath the shade tree,” said Bryan.
Bryan plans to move back north to the Duluth area, where her three sons and a number of grandchildren now live. She aims to learn guitar, and perhaps write a children’s book.
“Cindy and I talked about how we might write a book, maybe together and maybe separate,” she said, adding that years of teaching have given them plenty of material to build on. “Over the years I’ve been jotting ideas. Even for those struggling readers, I think about what I could write that might hook them and get them into reading.”
“We’ll start small,” said Gilchrist. “I think it’s so exciting when you can get a kid to love books all of a sudden, and read. And when you’re not teaching, what a good thing to do, to try to write those books for them.”
Gilchrist aims to slow down, do some reading herself, travel and maybe pick up a new hobby like pickleball. She also is considering substitute teaching so she can keep working with students, but on a more flexible schedule.
Koltes said that Hanover Elementary will miss the Bryan and Gilchrist in the years ahead.
“They’re best friends, they support each other and they work really closely together, so they’re a very strong team,” Koltes said. “You know they really love kids and care about them, and parents always spoke very highly of Jenelle and Cindy. I think they had good communication with families, and parents just knew they cared about their kids. To me, that was really evident. When you have teachers who can function so well as a team, it just helps kids.”
But new beginnings always bring new opportunities, and Bennett is excited to carry on a strong tradition of outstanding instruction at the third-grade level.
“I truly appreciated their kindness!” Bennett said of Bryan and Gilchrist. “Both ladies are two of the most loving individuals I’ve been blessed to work with. Not only do they demonstrate this kindness to their students, but also to their colleagues and the Hanover community. I am so fortunate that I was able to have their support and guidance this first year at Hanover! The Hanover Elementary team is truly going to miss these exceptional ladies and the excellence they brought to the community!”