FAIR HAVEN — Fair Haven Grade School has been home to a legend for the past 35 years, and this month the captain will come ashore. Longtime principal Wayne “Skip” Cooke is leaving his post after a 50-year career as an educator and administrator.
Born in Shoreham, graduated from Shoreham, Cooke started working in hayfields at the age of 10, saving up to pay his way through Castleton College, where he hoped to eventually study administration.
His high school basketball coach happened to be the superintendent at the Hydeville school for the Addison-Rutland district, and after a year serving as the school’s new basketball coach, offered Cooke a job straight out of college as a middle school teacher, before transferring to Fair Haven Union High School, where he would teach English for 14 years.
“I don’t know where the years went, I really don’t,” Cooke said with a grin.
After receiving his master’s degree in administration, Cooke thought he would continue on to serve in high school administration.
But fate had other plans.
“There was an opening here, at the time,” Cooke remembered. “Local people started to encourage me to apply. I saw myself in the catbird seat: I was very happy at a high school level.”
The first year, Cooke said, was a challenge: with the new beginnings of PSA — Public School Approval process — an assessment that the then-agency of education made for the state to evaluate their schools and hold them to a new set of standards.
“We met all of the standards for PSA by 1989,” Cooke said.
But Cooke didn’t plan to stay — after five years or so, Cooke said he intended to branch out to other levels of education, but as fate would have it, new initiatives kept appearing, and Cooke couldn’t quit.
The 1980s brought technological advancements and shifts in administration, and Cooke found himself growing closer with his team as society progressed and new styles of teaching became the norm.
“My one-liner is ‘hire the very best, support them and give them what they need, and then get out of their way,” Cooke said. “When you hire talented people, you don’t need a lot of hands-on. … Teaching is a gift, and connecting with kids is that innate piece.”
As his career matured, society’s pace quickened, creating a whole host of new opportunities that required Cooke to learn alongside his students with the coming age of cellphones, iPhones and the shrinking time families would have to spend with their children.
“Classes are significantly different than when I started as a classroom teacher, and even when I started here,” Cooke said. “Sometimes the human interaction with families, with kids, gets lost. So much is happening.”
Through it all, though, Cooke said he found his comfort zone was with his kids, spending every moment he could as a presence in their lives.
“Sometimes, we as adults get too busy,” Cooke said. “Sometimes our kids, our students might get overlooked. … They need our support. … They need someone in their lives that they can go to.”
Especially in Middle School, which Cooke said are some of the most difficult years in students’ lives, and school began serving as one of the places students could find love and attention that filled a void that might develop at home, one of the reasons Cooke said they have teacher advisers, who stay with their students for three years to take some emotional and educational weight off the teachers’ shoulders.
Social emotional learning, Cooke said, sometimes trumps teaching any of the major school subjects, and is becoming an increased need in today’s schools.
“If a student isn’t mentally and physically ready to learn, it’s not going to happen,” Cooke said. “Sometimes it’s just being there for kids, and being able to hear them.”
In addition to extra support and attention, Cooke said the key to a longstanding success in a school system is a stable, familiar administration that students come to trust.
“Constant turnover creates just enough change,” Cooke said. “That doesn’t allow for the system to evolve and stay focused.”
One of the many reasons why soon-to-be former vice principal Deborah Smith was chosen as Cooke’s successor, is that she’s held her office for 12 years.
“He’s been the rock of †his place for a very long time,” Smith said. “Those are shoes I could never fill. His knowledge of this community and this building, educational practices — it’s just astonishing.”
Addison-Rutland, now the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, met Act 46 with experienced administration, many of whom had worked in or around other schools in their district and maintained a familiarity with their former schools, and Cooke said the transition proved to be smoother than in some other districts given how close the schools already were.
Though the future of Vermont’s educational system banks on there being enough students to fill the schools, Fair Haven Grade School has seen little fluctuation in their student population maintaining just fewer than 400 students, Cooke said.
“I am worried,” Cooke said. “Some of our sister schools in the district have decreased notably.”
A compassionate, protective administration and open communication with teachers and students built a formidable team that were as a part of Fair Haven Grade School as were the stone walls protecting them.
Every day, Cooke said he rises at 5 a.m. to be at school by 7, and spent the better part of his days doing his “walkabouts,” making his way around the school and checking in on his teachers, saying hello to the kids, always relying on the unshakable wisdom of his administrative assistant, Terry, only the second in his time as principal.
“Sometimes I say, ‘She just lets me sit in here,’ Cooke said. “If I need to know anything, I just ask Terry.”
After June 28, Cooke said he and his wife, also retiring this year, plan to take the first year planning their next adventure, which may very well lead back to the sea. Cooke’s wife is from Cape Cod, and Cooke said he’s looking forward to early mornings on Falmouth beaches with his Dunkin’ coffee.
“I get up before everyone else, go get my coffee, get the paper … and watch the ships out at sea,” Cooke said. “It’s very peaceful.”
But wherever they end up, FHGS will always be one of Cooke’s vessels. Smith described Cooke as a captain known for his catch phrases and seemingly bottomless wells of “grandfatherly” wisdom, Smith said.
“I’ve loved (working with Skip),” Smith said. “What I most admire about him is, he’s a great listener. … Sometimes you just have to listen, and let people come to a solution on their own.”
“The kids have kept me young,” said Cooke, now approaching his 72nd birthday. “I’ve been very, very lucky.”