‘This school is like a family’

Pierce School: Bennington community says goodbye to beloved elementary school teacher

Claudia Sysyn spent 38 years spreading joy throughout the halls of Pierce School. On Monday community members spent the afternoon thanking her and reminiscing during Sysyn’s retirement party.

“This is incredible. I didn’t expect this,” said Sysyn on Monday, in awe of the number of people that came to bid her farewell.

Sysyn, a Hancock resident, began teaching in 1975 at the Antrim Elementary School. After teaching one school year at AES, she was hired to work at Pierce, where she spent 38 years.

“This school is like a family. I usually had kids for two years, so I really got to know them,” said Sysyn.

Sysyn’s strong attachment to her former students was on full display Monday, as many former students were in attendance.

Meredith Reed O’Donnell came up from Newburyport, Mass., to wish Sysyn well as she heads into retirement. O’Donnell grew up in Bennington and was taught by Sysyn in third and forth grade during the late 1970s.

“She was always very kind, honest and fair. She really cared about what her students were learning and feeling. Claudia always had a wonderful classroom, where she tried to engage students in creative ways,” recalled O’Donnell on Monday.

When asked if she had planned to retire this year, Sysyn was quick to admit that she had never thought about retiring, but that multiple sclerosis — an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord — has left her no choice.

“I have had multiple sclerosis since I was a teenager. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to deal with it ever since then,” said Sysyn.

Sysyn did not find out she had the disease until she was 34, and says that the stress of teaching is hard for her to deal with these days. “My attitude has always been, ‘So I have MS, big deal.’ I had not anticipated [retiring] so soon, but it’s good,” she said.

As Sysyn sat in a chair by the window during her retirement party, family and friends brought her food and drinks, while making her laugh and encouraging her to enjoy retirement to the fullest.

Karen Folley, a Bennington resident, has been one of Sysyn’s closest friends for years. “She taught two of my children and I was an aid at the Pierce School for 19 years,” said Folley, who worked with Sysyn on cooking projects and school plays. “Claudia’s love of children, and inspiration that she gives to her students, is amazing. She is always willing to give her time after school to continue to help the students.”

According to Folley, Sysyn would routinely sacrifice her planning periods during the holiday season in order to make holiday songs for the students.

“She never forgets her kids. She knows them all to this day,” said Folley.

Sysyn’s plans for retirement remain in flux as she admits that retirement remains overwhelming.

“Retirement is very overwhelming. I have lots of things that I put on hold for when I retire,” said Sysyn, who is a member of the Monadnock Quilting Guild. “I want to quilt with some third and fourth graders after school. I also want to do some extra volunteer work with students after school. I want to keep volunteering at the school.”

Sysyn, whose favorite thing about teaching has always been finding each student’s strength, has yet to come to terms with her retirement.

“I always planned to teach until it wasn’t fun anymore, until I felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” she said.

Dylan Fisher can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235, or

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