The accordion doors that separate one section of the tiny Sagaponack School from another are covered in children’s doodles, all expressing appreciation for Diana McGinniss, the school’s head teacher.After 22 years at the school, Ms. McGinniss will retire when the 2013-14 academic year comes to a close on Friday.
Ms. McGinniss, 55, an East Hampton resident, started off at Sagaponack as a substitute teacher in 1992 and then became a part-time teacher until 1998. That year, she took on the role as head teacher, a position she has held ever since.
Retiring, she said, was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make.
“It was just a really good time for me and my family,” she explained. “It’s time to transition the reins to a new teacher.”
She said during her tenure as head teacher, she has placed a strong emphasis on approaching learning as a team concept by heavily involving her students’ parents in their education. That way, she said, the children could receive constant support, both in school and at home.
And Ms. McGinniss made sure to teach all of her students the importance of first impressions—whenever the children meet someone new, they shake their hands and look them in the eye when they say hello.
“Many people have said to me, ‘You can tell a Sagg kid from walking down the hall,’” she said. “They’re so well-behaved. They’re proud of their school.”
Although technically it has two rooms, the Sagaponack School is still considered a one-room schoolhouse, according to Jeanette Krempler, the district clerk, one of the few remaining in New York State. This year, there are 10 students with three teachers at the school, which serves first- through fourth-graders.
During her time there, Ms. McGinniss said she saw many changes: big “archaic” Mac computers and giant fax machines replaced by Google Chromebooks and smaller devices, Smart Boards mounted in front of chalkboards, and overhead projectors disappearing in favor of digital document cameras.
The curriculum also changed. State education officials implemented the Common Core Learning Standards, something Ms. McGinniss said Sagaponack had prepared for ever since the early stages of planning for the new standards. And although that new curriculum is tough, the head teacher said she is confident her successor—the School Board is currently interviewing candidates—will do well.
Ms. McGinniss said she has felt welcome from the moment she started. The Sag Harbor native had returned to teaching after a maternity leave from teaching kindergarten for three years at St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in Sag Harbor. Coming into the Sagaponack School was intimidating, she said, but the community embraced her.
Being head teacher came with a lot of responsibilities, though. “You’re the nurse one day, you’re the policeman, you’re the crossing guard,” Ms. McGinniss said. “You’re the one who keeps control over everything.”
She said she would not have been able to successfully run the school on a daily basis without the help of Sagaponack’s other teachers, staff and board members.
Employees said they could not have run the school without her. Ms. McGinniss was described as “very dedicated” to her job and someone whom both students and the community could look up to.
“She was wonderful to work with,” said Cathy Hatgistavrou, president of the School Board. “She really set the tone for the school. She worked well with her co-workers, and the kids loved her.”
“She made everyone feel safe,” said Ms. Krempler. “She’s not just a teacher—she’s also a nurturer. I want to wish her well in all of her endeavors and everything that she does in the future.”
As she reflected on her time with the Sagaponack School, Ms. McGinniss could not help but shed some tears. She said it was difficult telling the students about her retirement, but she assured them that she will be back to visit many times. To prepare them for their new head teacher, she had them fill out questionnaires about themselves to help the new teacher learn about them—and perhaps learned a little about the impressions she left on them. Ms. McGinniss said that for one question about the new teacher, “I like you because …” one student replied, “You love us already.”
Tears aside, Ms. McGinniss said she is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren, and possibly writing children’s books in the years ahead. She described it all as “a new chapter.”
“It’s bittersweet for me,” she said. “I love the building, I love the community, I love the kids. I feel very humbled to have been entrusted with these children’s lives … and being welcomed into their lives.
“I just feel so blessed to have spent my entire career in this one-room school,” she added.