Duncan looks back on 41 years of teaching (6/25/09)

June 25, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

After 41 years of teaching students history, social studies and everything in between, longtime Williston teacher John Duncan has decided to call it a day. Duncan announced his retirement in quiet fashion at the end of the school year and he said leaving was not an easy decision.


    File photo
Former Williston Central School teacher John Duncan runs the New York City Marathon in 2006. After 41 years of teaching at Williston Central School, Duncan retired this spring. As part of his retirement plans, he hopes to organize a morning running program for campers visiting Fort DeSoto State Park in Florida.

“I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while,” Duncan said last week. “A lot of my peers had already moved on.”

Duncan, 63, started at Williston Central School in 1968, fresh out of college. Through his career, he has taught many children of former students and even third generation family members. He also enjoys keeping active by biking, running and kayaking. When the district had a track team, Duncan was the coach.

Special Services Director Carter Smith, a longtime friend and colleague, said students have been drawn to Duncan’s teaching style.

“John has always been very popular with kids and they have liked him back,” Smith said.

Duncan said he struggled with the decision to retire right up until the close of school on June 10. He said the unexpected death of friend and fellow teacher Al Myers in April had a profound effect and helped him make his decision.

“You only get so many days and so many years,” Duncan said.

Duncan said he’s loved every one of his 41 years in Williston. He started teaching when the school still had a single-grade structure. As the district began experimenting with multi-age classrooms and then the house system, Duncan helped make the changes easy, Smith said. In recent years, Duncan had been a teacher in Verve House. When Verve closed down last year due to school restructuring, Duncan moved to Full House as the fifth member of the teaching team.

Even since the late 1960s, Duncan said students haven’t changed all that much. He said students at the middle-school level still look for attention and approval from teachers and peers.

“They just need the same things they’ve always needed,” Duncan said.

What has changed is the complexity of the world students live in. Technology has changed the way students are connected with the world, Duncan said.

“Children are much more impacted today by their environment around them,” Duncan said. “There are a lot more forces acting upon children.”

Vermont and beyond

Duncan said he’s got several plans for his retirement. In fact, Duncan flew to Florida this week to purchase a used “camper van.” He plans on driving it back to Vermont and fixing it up this summer. Then in the winter, after visiting his daughter in Arizona, Duncan will volunteer as an interpreter at Florida’s Fort DeSoto State Park. Besides being famous for its white sand beaches, the state park also holds the ruins of a Civil War-era fort. Duncan will inform visitors about the history of the fort, as well as organize a morning running program for campers.

Duncan said he wants to make Fort DeSoto something of a winter home. He’s visited many times for marathon training, he said. He’ll use the park again to train for future half-marathons and other races, he added.

And while Duncan is looking forward to traveling the country more freely, he said he’ll continue to make his home in Vermont.

“I built my house (in Huntington) in 1978 and still haven’t finished it,” he said with a laugh.

Smith said Duncan’s retirement will leave a “big hole” at the school he worked at for so many years. Smith added that Duncan’s storytelling of history could not be matched.

Duncan said teaching history and how it affects students’ lives is what he’ll miss the most.

“The most memorable part of my career has just been my ability to do what I love,” Duncan said. “I like students to leave my classroom loving history.”