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Motivated by a loving mom who fostered her joy of all things funny-and by dour elementary school teachers who did not-Sharon MacKinnel just may be the favorite teacher of every young student lucky enough to have entered her Branford classroom.
In June, after 36 years with Branford Public Schools, Sharon retired with the same ritual ending other school years: sprinkling fairy dust on each of her graduating kindergarteners. Her 2013-'14 class was the last group of Branford kids to enjoy one of many fond memories Sharon has granted so many.
"I do fairy dust at the end of the year to send them on their way," says Sharon. "I tell them it goes right to their heart so it will keep me with them forever."
As a kindergarten teacher at Tisko School for more than 30 years, Sharon cultivated a classroom environment where kids could laugh and learn, while making a special effort to connect with each student.
"It doesn't matter what the curriculum is," says Sharon. "What matters is your connection with those kids and getting them to want to learn. And for me, you can never underestimate the power of laughter and humor. When kids think things are funny, they want to do it. And you have to make a connection with each kid, because every kid is different. And kids are very insightful. They know if you really like them or if you don't."
A Branford native, Sharon grew up on Home Place and went to Branford Hills School as a kindergartener before attending parochial school.
"As a kid, I remember Branford Hills being this little school, but in my eyes, it was this huge building," says Sharon. "They asked me to be a milk helper and I looked down this hall ,and I was thinking, 'How could I ever get down there and back?' And then I went there as a teacher for my first job out of college, and it was this little dinky school! And the lesson it taught me was I always needed to see the world through the eyes of a child, because it was so vastly different."
As an elementary student herself, "I was the kid in school who couldn't sit still and I would say the funny things," says Sharon. "And I went to a parochial school, where they really didn't appreciate those funny things. So they'd laugh the first few times, and after that: Out. So I spent some time contemplating what I should be doing! But the one thing was my mother always appreciated my humor. She saw beyond that, where the nuns did not."
Sharon's mom, Fran Rudden, was a stay-at-home who later became a secretary at Brushy Plains (now Murphy) School.
"She was warm and very endearing to kids," says Sharon. "She was significant to me because she taught me to be kind, and she was kind, and so I learned an example from her about that. I think adults can be real good role models to kids. My mother was my biggest fan and she taught me to be so kind to those kids who don't have it at home, especially. So that was the one lesson she taught me that was so important."
Another significant person in Sharon's life was "Mr. Chambers from Shelley's Garden [Center]-I grew up on that street and I worked for him for years. He taught me about work ethic, he taught me about making things grow, and that's very similar to kids. You watch them grow and you get such significance out of that, like when they become a reader from a non-reader, or a writer from a non-writer. That's huge."
Sharon's first job was teaching a combined 3rd- and 2nd-grade class at Branford Hills for one year, followed by teaching 2 nd grade at the school. She got her shot at teaching kindergarteners due to diminished 2nd-grade enrollment at Branford Hills. In 1980, Sharon was assigned as a kindergarten teacher at Damascus Road School (now Tisko).
"I always wanted to be a teacher and I always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, from the time I was in kindergarten," she says.
The entire Damascus school population moved to Indian Neck School during major building renovations in the early 1990s. In 1992, Sharon moved into her classroom at the newly named Mary R. Tisko Elementary School. She taught from that same room at the end of the hall until closing the door behind her last group of graduating kindergarteners this June.
Tisko opened under the supervision of (now-retired) principal Mark Rabinowitz, who told The Sound upon his retirement that he set out to build a "dream school" by collaborating with staff on what could be done to make the Tisko community the best it could be. In fact, "Be the Best You Can Be" became his signature sign off on daily announcements. The ideal continues with the "Believe and You Will Achieve" slogan shared by current Tisko Principal James O'Connor.
"I'm really impressed by the principals I had. The principals have also let me be me, and I appreciate that because I would not be happy if I could not be me," says Sharon. "With colleagues, parents, and the kids, to me, it's all about being a team-and if you can be funny and have humor and laugh, then to me, you're golden."
Because Rabinowitz was her school principal for nearly all of Sharon's teaching career, his leadership style impacted her greatly, she notes.
"He would always ask you your opinion, or he would seek out five people who had wisdom about it, and he respected people's knowledge and experience. He valued the people-just like I value the kids, the parents, the families," says Sharon.
She also treasured her co-workers, from retired school custodian George Cornachini to her next-door-teaching-neighbor, Kathy Nelson (who also retired this year). The two "team-taught" for years, notes Sharon. Nelson is godmother to Sharon's daughter, Abby, and taught kindergarten to her as well. Sharon also thanks her two "wonderful aides," Alicia Rohner and Stephanie Lohret.
As for her family, including Abby, son Kyle, and husband, Doug, Sharon says their support was a huge part of any success she enjoyed during her teaching career.
"They're just the best. They're significant in my life and school because they made it possible for me to be in school with the intensity that it needed," she says. "And they let my mother be here to live with us for the last 10 years of her life, and took such good care of my mother."
As for wrapping up her teaching career and facing her last day of teaching in June, "It was awful, but the parents and the kids were wonderful," says Sharon.
"We had a dance party, which was fun-those kids had a ball. But to watch those kids walk down the hall for the last time…I always cry the last day every year, and we did the fairy dust, and the parents were so giving to me. I love all of the gifts, but it's always been the letters from them that mean the most to me. If a parent trusts you, you can work miracles, because you can work as a team. And in my opinion, the parent is always the best teacher, because the parent is the one that is going to stay with them their whole life."
While she may have retired from teaching kindergarten full time, Sharon plans to stay busy-and keep teaching. She's working on finalizing her goal of teaching remedial reading to kindergarteners within a public school district come fall.
"I love kids," says Sharon. "I've always loved kids, because I am a kid, kind of-I never grew up myself. And you have to keep learning. I've evolved; I've learned a lot. I think I'm more effective now as a reading teacher and a writing teacher. My husband always said to me, 'You are so lucky to have a job where you get so much back.' My mother always said to me, 'Sharon, if you do good things for people, it will come back to you 10 times'…and it does."