Leaving in the time of corona

Jun 18, 2020

After 36 years working in the Dartmouth Public School system, Potter Elementary School Principal Heidi Brooks will be retiring on June 30.

But she can still be found working in the school’s office preparing for next year — despite the fact that no one knows what the next school year will look like.

“The hardest thing is this whole Covid [pandemic.] Everything has changed,” said Brooks. “It’s really surreal for all of us.”

She and Assistant Principal Rick Porter — who will be taking the reins after she leaves — were assigning kids to classrooms for next year as normal on a recent June afternoon.

It feels “very strange” to be leaving, especially now, Brooks noted. Since she began teaching right after her own education, she said, “The fact that I’m going to join people who don’t operate on the school calendar totally confuses me!”

“I have a lot of information in my head that’s school related, that also will go with me, but it has limited street value,” she added with a laugh. 

And Brooks said she can’t even look at the colorful messages that kids and colleagues have left for her in front of Potter School. “I’m not looking at the signs,” she said, shaking her head.

“Even though we’re talking about it, I’m not thinking that this person that we’re discussing is me,” she added with a smile. “I just can’t. Because I will be a blubbering mess.”

Brooks has spent her entire career at Dartmouth Schools, first teaching at Gidley, then becoming Assistant Principal at Potter before taking on the role of Principal at Cushman for a decade. She has been the Potter School principal for 12 years. 

“It was definitely a man’s world,” she said of school leadership.

When she decided to apply for the principal’s position at Cushman, she remembered, “My father said to me, ‘Well that’s nice honey, but they really should have a man for the principal.’”

“And I thought, ‘Oh, hell no,’” she recalled with a laugh. “And then I did get that job.”

Porter said that he wasn’t “initially thrilled” when he first worked with Brooks because he thought as an Early Childhood teacher, she wouldn’t know what to do with his fifth graders.

“One of the first few weeks on the job, we had some fifth graders who were acting up, and she suspended them,” he remembered with a smile. “And I thought, okay, she can do this.”

“Heidi’s from Dartmouth, she grew up in Dartmouth, she has never left Dartmouth except to go to college. Her entire career has been in Dartmouth,” he said. “Heidi bleeds green.”

And as much as it will be hard for her to let go, Porter added, it will be even harder for the people she leaves behind.

“I have her on retainer,” he joked.

For Brooks, Potter is more than a place kids go to learn academics. “We’ve been calling Potter School ‘Our Happy Place’ for years now,” she said, noting that the focus has shifted to relationship building and socio-emotional learning.

“We don’t just say it, we live it,” she added. “The world can be crazy, but if we can count on the time you’re here at Potter School...This is your happy place.”

And since the pandemic, she noted, “The world has gotten crazier.”

“People walked out of here on March 13 not knowing we wouldn’t come back,” Brooks said. “So the school was frozen in time.”

Brooks described coming in to check on the building and seeing classroom calendars stuck on March 13, and even notebooks left open. 

“It was very eerie,” she said. “It felt a little bit like when you see pictures of Chernobyl, or New York after 9/11, where it was just empty, and time had stopped.”

Remote learning also presented teachers with a lot of new challenges, particularly as they had no time to prepare when the pandemic struck. 

Brooks likened trying to devise and teach remote lessons to “building the plane while flying.”

“I think they did an amazing job,” she said. “I really have to give a lot of credit to the teachers...not one class did any of us ever have in college that prepared us for this.”

“We have a comprehensive emergency management plan — pandemic is not even a topic covered. We’ve got tornadoes, and hurricanes, and fire, and food poisoning. Intruders. But pandemic is not in there,” she said. “There was nothing that could have prepared us for the world we’re living in right now.”

Brooks decided to retire this year, she said, because she felt it was difficult to find a perfect balance between home and work, and she wants to spend time with her family.

“We’ve had so many colleagues over the years that have said ‘I’ll work one more year,’ only to have their own illness or a spouse with an illness, and not be able to enjoy that true picture of retirement,” she noted. “And I didn’t want to take that chance.”

She said that she will most miss the interactions and camaraderie she has with colleagues and especially students at the school.

“If I’m having one of those crazy days, of just paperwork or phone calls, it is great to just walk down the hall to preschool,” she said. “And they’re always happy. They’re always singing…There’s no better sound than kids [playing.] I can’t imagine another kind of job.”