SWANTON — Two of Swanton’s principals were recognized for their efforts with statewide titles this week: one self-identifies as an aisle-clogging Yankees diehard, and the other started her educational career when she was in elementary school.
Dena St. Amour
“My mom was an in-home kindergarten teacher,” said Swanton Elementary School Principal Dena St. Amour, recipient of the Henry Giaguque Vermont Elementary School Principal of the Year Award from the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA). “I was eight or nine, and I would come home from school and find the neighborhood kids in my kitchen (for the afternoon session.)”
Originally a student at Saint Anne’s Elementary School in Swanton, St. Amour and her classmates were originally let out early on Mondays to go to the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine or CCD, and St. Amour remembers helping out in her mother’s kindergarten, sometimes with the help of senior citizens from around the community.
“It brought me closer to the people of Swanton,” St. Amour recalls. “Our family’s community involvement has always been pretty deep.”
With mom Carol Fiarkoski and dad Joe a Swanton high school teacher and later coach at Missisquoi Valley Union High School, St. Amour was embedded in the educational community and local sports teams that her father championed.
“I got to play for my dad,” St. Amour said. “He was very tough on me ... but that happens a lot when parents are coaches.”
But St. Amour wouldn’t go on immediately to pursue a career in education. She first received her degree from Champlain College as a legal secretary, but after six months decided a career change was in the works: she received her undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont in Elementary Education, and headed back to her hometown.
At the time, there was no Swanton Elementary School teacher job to be had, but St. Amour had only a few months to wait until a third-grade teacher Bruce Bachelder agreed to take a principalship, leaving the door open for St. Amour in 1986.
St. Amour was in the classroom for 17 years before she took a job as a literacy content specialist for three years, before moving up to the director of curriculum seat where she served for seven years.
Eight years ago, she made the choice to accept the coveted position as the leader of Swanton Elementary School, second home to both her and her children for so many years.
“That was nothing I’d ever aspired to,” St. Amour said. “To be a principal. But it was Swanton and that made a difference.”
Just up the road, the John Winton Vermont Middle Level Principal of the Year is Daniel Palmer, principal of the Missisquoi Valley Middle School, and a diehard Yankees fan with a renowned selection of ties.
“I will probably end my career as an administrator, but there are parts of teaching that I will always love,” Palmer recalled. “You don’t get to connect with all of those kids as an administrator.”
Like St. Amour, Palmer didn’t start out his career in education. Palmer figured he would go into marketing, and had a penchant for studying advertisements in between television shows growing up.
“Advertising was just one of those skills I was good at, but one of the things I learned was that if you want to be successful in marketing you had to live in a more urban setting,” Palmer said. “And I wasn’t interested in that.”
A small town man with an eye for sales, Palmer said he went back to school at University of Vermont for a five-year teaching certificate, and after spending some time in Pennsylvania he and his family moved to Vermont in 1999.
Numbers and trends came fairly easy to him, and Palmer made a name for himself teaching economics as a part of his social studies curriculum.
After four years at MVU, Palmer became department chair, before he was approached with the prospect of being the new assistant principal.
Palmer served 10 years in that capacity as one of the two assistant principals, before the principalship was divided instead: now, MVU would have two co-principals and one assistant principal, giving Palmer the chance to co-lead the school he had come to love as much if not more so than his favorite sports team.
Right in the middle of Red Sox nation.
“It’s all about those connections that you make with kids,” Palmer said. “It’s why I’m still a coach. It could be that one kid who is really quiet in the classroom, that you finally reach out on the field...I have a giant (Yankees) NY sign outside my door — it’s a conversation piece. It’s a connection for kids to make when they need one.”
Though they be the jewels of a small town, Swanton won’t be celebrating both of their principals next year. This year, St. Amour is retiring from her role at the head of Swanton Elementary, and will be pursuing her new passion as a certified life coach and traveling and spending time with her children, MVU graduates Matthieu and Brianna.
“Swanton is my community,” St. Amour said. “It’s home to so many generations of families ... I never had a desire to be anywhere else.”
Swanton residents can rest easy though. Palmer said he’s looking forward to many more years at MVU and as the town’s premier aisle clogger at the grocery store.
“Teaching is all about recognizing that you can help them achieve what they want to,” Palmer said. ”It’s about supporting them and encouraging them. The relationships you form never leave you...when I see families at the store, I usually take a long time.”