Story originally appeared in Belleville News-Democrat’s September 2017 issue of Prime Life Magazine.
While most teachers are busy opening their classroom doors to new students this month, two long time educators from metro east districts are opening doors to a new chapter in their lives. As they make the transition from grading papers to gardening, these ladies reflect on why school has been their favorite place for the past two decades.
Nina Marifian, Ellis Elementary/Harmony Intermediate Center, Belleville
Former fourth grade students at Ellis and Harmony will always remember Mrs. Marifian’s stories, and that’s exactly what she intended by telling them.
“By telling stories in the classroom about my own experiences, I hoped that the children would be motivated to go out and do something new every day,” said Marifian. “To explain to them that cooperating and collaborating with others has fulfilled my life, and that it can do the same for them.”
As a teacher at Ellis and Harmony for the past 19 years, Marifian told many tales of how her Belleville students with so many characteristics and skill levels were able to work together to complete projects in her classroom. She also told stories of how her own three kids learned to get along during the ten years she stayed home with them prior to teaching at Ellis. Rewinding even further, her stories told of worldly knowledge she gained while teaching students in England for several years – students of various ethnicities and life experiences who traveled to many countries and had to constantly adapt to new surroundings. Her stories from before that explained how as a child she had to share and cooperate constantly with her twin sister (who also became a teacher), and that despite not always appreciating each other, they became best buddies. Each story she told to her students laid the foundation for her lesson that life is not an individual sport.
“Teambuilding at the fourth grade level is a necessity for success,” said Marifian. “At that age, it’s important for kids to start realizing that throughout their lives, it won’t always be about how smart they are as individuals. It will be about how well they can work with others.”
One of Marifian’s favorite activities as an educator was conducting the Mini-Society, in which students were broken into small groups and given jobs to create a business. It required teamwork to create a product or service, price it fairly, delegate jobs, and figure out how to keep the business going. Sometimes the activity brought up arguments or feelings of being slighted, but that was an important part of what she aimed to teach.
“I would hear, ‘I’m doing all the work but I have to split my profit!’” said Marifian. “But it taught them that it’s always important to talk things through and make sure everyone is doing their part if they want things to be fair for everyone.”
There’s no doubt that students will miss Marifian and her stories, and that she will miss her classroom. After being so busy as a mom and then teaching for so many years, she admits that having this free time feels a little strange. She hopes to learn to embrace her retirement by spending time gardening, reading books, visiting with her children, and traveling with her husband, George when he can take some time off from his law firm. She also plans to stay in touch with her co-workers who made these past two decades some of the best years of her life.
“Teaching has been so much fun,” she said. “My students and colleagues were my friends. In all these years, I never even felt like I was going to work.”
Cail Furkin, Eagleview Elementary, Columbia
Along with teaching early reading skills, Cail Furkin’s main goal for the past 26 years has been to instill kindness in kindergartners.
“Every day with young children is a challenge,” said Furkin. “But the fun in teaching social skills – to cooperate, to be happy, to care for kids who are different than you — those things are so rewarding.”
Furkin was hired in Columbia in 1991 after staying home with her own three kids for 10 years. Her claim to fame in the district is the way she allowed parents to be involved in the classroom. On one evening per month, moms and dads were invited to join their children at school for games and activities, to get to know Mrs. Furkin, and to get to know the other classmates and their parents.
“Many parents work, and can’t come in during the day to volunteer for parties and things,” said Furkin. “Our special evenings together allowed every parent to meet the friends their children had been talking about, and every child at that age just loves to have mom and dad at school with them. In my last several classes, it was neat for me to reconnect with some of the parents whom I actually taught twenty years ago.”
One obstacle Furkin faced as a kindergarten teacher was having students who begin school at such various skill levels. Some can already read while some struggle with identifying letters, some can add while some have trouble counting. But rather than allowing any student to feel inferior, Furkin focused on teaching each child to celebrate his or own success, and to accept differences in others.
“The students have to learn to embrace their own capabilities and build on those, and be proud of what they can accomplish,” said Furkin. “Some of the children would come up to me and say ‘He’s not doing it the right way,’ or ‘She messed up.’ And I’d say ‘Yes, and don’t you just love ‘em?’ They have to learn that everyone does things differently and sometimes they make mistakes, and that’s okay.”
As she adjusts to life in retirement, Furkin is enjoying spending more time reading books and volunteering in the garden at Christ Community Church. She and her husband, Bob, like to travel and recently returned from a trip out east where they visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, Niagara Falls, and internet sensation April the giraffe. This winter, they hope to stay a month in Florida to spend time with their daughter who lives there. But even though she’s finding ways to spend her free time, Furkin is missing her young students and hopes to volunteer at Eagleview in the near future to be near them again.
“Each year I taught, I always felt like I had 20+ new grandchildren,” said Furkin. “I thoroughly enjoy being around the children, and I’d love to be back there.”