Having served as an English teacher and Department Director over the past half century, the incomparable Judy Hession will be retiring at the end of this school year. During her tenure, Judy taught thousands and believes she likely wrote over 1,000 letters of recommendations for her students. She will be remembered fondly for WHS’s annual Shakespeare Days, her dynamic personality, and her ability to encourage creative expression and find the very best in her students.
What was your pathway into teaching in Winchester?
I grew up in Winchester, but attended Catholic schools and knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue a life in the theater. After acting in several high school plays at Matignon High School, I sought out colleges with joint English and Theater degrees. Unfortunately, my father was not as enthusiastic about my plan to be an actress. “The theater is no place for a girl.” Disheartened, I explored teaching English as a possible other opportunity to have a life in “performance.” It was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I have never looked back.
The other wish I had for myself at an early age was to study hard, find work and move away from Winchester as soon as possible. So when job offers arrived after graduation, it was the very furthest opportunity in Glastonbury, CT that I accepted, sight unseen. I learned everything I could about teaching, had tremendous coaches and mentors and would have stayed there. But Pratt and Whitney engineers and life insurance salesmen were not my cup of tea. Conveniently, Winchester was about to build a new high school (that dates me) and also had a paperback book room (not using anthology textbooks which was typical at the time). I was swayed and accepted a position to teach, but, of course, moved to my own place in Cambridge. That was 1970.
Has there been a recent endeavor/passion that you are most proud to have accomplished or pursued?
In the last five years, I have been honored twice, once by Cornell University (nominated by a former student) and also Harvard University (by WHS Principal Dennis Mahoney) as an Outstanding Teacher. Cornell flew me there to New York for the weekend and Harvard celebrated with a breakfast. At the breakfast, one of the women on the Board introduced herself. Her face looked familiar, and then it struck me. Turns out I had taught her in the early 70s when I first came to WHS. I was stunned and honored. There are not many professions where you can have such a significant and memorable impact on so many talented individuals, even those who you have not seen for 40 +years. I never forget it’s a privilege, too.
Were there a few moments, people or experiences in your teaching career that stand out?
There have been a lot of experiences, memories and individuals who have guided me. Being a teacher provided so many opportunities. I have been very fortunate.
I’m not a planner. My best experiences occur when I follow my curiosity. I was a Fulbright student in Israel; I take classes every year as a WFEE Teacher Scholar; I have been to Japan and Cuba with educator support, and sought out every opportunity to be absorbed by other cultures. All of these experiences have kept my passions alive, my teaching energized, and students engaged with the world outside the 01890. In 1995 I was the last WHS teacher awarded a sabbatical year which I spent auditing classes and wandering the halls of Harvard, soaking in every discussion and debate. I’ll be forever grateful to Superintendent Charles Mitsakos who selected me for this opportunity. (Coincidentally the same year his office was torn down across from McCall to make way for a Lincoln playground.)
I’m sure it’s no surprise that I’ve always been disappointed WHS never had a strong performing arts program. When I turned 40, I had a mid-life crisis, and questioned why theater wasn’t yet/more a part of my life and my teaching. I signed up for an adult education comedy class in Cambridge. I made my husband Charles attend with me, and I started writing scripts. I quickly realized he was getting all of the laughs, and I was the straight guy. It wasn’t much, but I was writing. What if I wrote a monologue that I could perform about growing up an only girl in a Catholic family of boys?!? So I did!
Fired up from the experience, I returned to Winchester and started inventing and designing the curriculum for the Shakespearean and Modern Drama course. I soon realized that I needed training on how to teach Shakespeare through performance. I received a WFEE grant to study at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires and then the next year received another to study at the Globe Theater in London. One highlight of the last 20 years has been Shakespeare Day. Drama students perform all day long for their peers and I am so impressed by their pride and their talent.
I couldn’t be more grateful for WFEE for their funding and for supporting these kinds of experiences for teachers. I would encourage every teacher to apply every year for grants. I’m amazed more teachers don’t take advantage of this tremendous resource. Thanks to them I’m taking a TAS seminar on Moby Dick right now…. There’s so much to learn still.
As you look back, what would you hope your legacy will be?
I’m so glad that I was able to return to full time teaching this year, so that I could spend time in the classroom, but it has been a strange year. I’ll look back at my many years as an English Director and building the program as a cohesive 6-12 grade curriculum as my proudest accomplishment. Yes, we worked hard to develop the curriculum, but it was also the building of a family. I had four requirements with my hiring – 1) sense of humor; 2) depth of experience; 3) differentiation of expertise; and 4) a personality that kids could relate to, so that every child could find at least 1 English teacher with which to connect.
Along the way I also designed a professional development seminar that teachers would take for credit during the school year that included: adult development, peer coaching, and instructional strategies. For seven years, it was a powerful and successful program that supported young teachers and veteran teachers.
There’s been a lot of longevity with that formula (hiring + lifelong learning). Plus, I still value our paperback closet that continues to expand. Eventually it will be replaced by the internet.
What are your plans for retirement?
I don’t really want to think about that. Next year will be a sabbatical year for me – reading books, taking classes. I don’t want to come back and be a substitute, as I think I need to transition from that adventure to something new.
Currently I’m reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. I’ll take my annual week-long trip to NYC at Christmas, visit with my step children, and see as many nonmusical performances as I possibly can. The theater is still where I get my energy, there and being with family including my new great grandbabies. Oh, and I have three last letters of recommendation to write.
Since I was 25, I’ve been unable to travel in the Fall when school was getting going. Every place is just a little nicer that time of year. Maybe a September journey to an unknown island. We’ll see.
Is there any insight you would like to share with current students? Current faculty? A wish that you have for them? Advice?
What I notice right now is that creativity is exploding. This is an important thing to happen, because everyone’s artistic skills must be nurtured and the pandemic is forcing this. Teachers AND students should not just be analytical. Expressing yourself creatively is one of the most important parts of growing and evolving. I especially am profoundly inspired right now by performing artists that are offering their music and talents to the world. It took too long, but no time like now! Everyone is born with talents, but they must be developed, practiced and expanded.
Follow your curiosity and be creative!
The Winchester Alumni Association wishes to honor and thank all of the Winchester faculty members retiring this year, including: James Moriarty, Technology Teacher High School; Jean Adams, Spanish Teacher High School, and Paula Macinanti, Instructor High School. We are grateful to you all.
Judy is only one of our many Faculty Alumni, and just one of the 2100 members who have registered with the Winchester Alumni Association. Join the conversation and register today at WinchesterAlumni.org to stay in touch with Judy and other Alumni across the decades!