The PTA was honoured to welcome Michèle Richard, retiring Vice Principal of the Primary School, to its recent AGM, where she shared some memories of her thirty year journey at La Châtaigneraie. The lucky parents in the room had a first hand history lesson about the school from the 1980s onwards, heard about her philosophy and values and also found out why she feels so indebted to ‘la communauté extraordinaire’ of La Chât.
Mme Richard first came to the school in 1980 with her husband and young daughter Frede. It looked just like the postcard she recently found, complete with swimming pool and tennis court. At that time, the school was much smaller, with around 450 students and only three buildings. Mme Richard’s husband was studying for his Pyschology degree in Geneva by day and then looking after the boarders in the evening. The young couple lodged first in the tower of the Alps building, and then in the room that is now the Secondary staff lounge. They were delighted with the big garden and swimming pool and have fond memories of looking after the boarders. It was here that their daughter first started to speak English, waking the students each morning with ‘Time to get up!’ In 1984, the school boarded the boys and girls together and two years later the boarding school was closed. It was at this point that Mme Richard started to teach.
The first class that Mme Richard taught was a composite class of two year groups. She had around 24 to 25 students, with an assistant only in the mornings. It was Mme Richard’s first experience of the non-traditional style of teaching to which she had been used. At La Chât she discovered an approach that was more holistic, encouraged differentiation and put the child at the centre of learning. This was something that really spoke to her and accorded with her own set of values. Life at school then was quite different to how it is now. It was not uncommon to decide to just take the whole class of children out for a walk if the weather was fine. Mme Richard never lost a child, although one little Japanese student sadly lost his shoe on one outing and was unable to tell anyone as he spoke neither English nor French.
By 1992, the Richard family had four daughters and so Mme Richard decided to take a break. However, this did not last long as she decided to open a kindergarten in her own home, where she looked after 10 children every morning. Mme Richard also trained in PNL (programmation neuro-linguistique) at this time.
In 2000, Mme Richard was invited to return to La Chât, where she took up the position of Year 3 teacher in the French section of the Primary school. One of her daughters was in her class at this time. Mme Richard also taught the same cohort when they were in Years 5 and 6, so for some children she taught them for half of their primary schooling. Returning to La Chât in 2000 coincided with the introduction of the Primary Years Programme, which was even more aligned with Mme Richard’s philosophy of teaching. She was also very attracted to the idea of units of inquiry, which is fundamental to the PYP. Some of those same units of inquiry are still studied today, albeit in a much evolved form.
This approach to inquiry took many different forms. One recollection involved a friend who used to make a weekly visit to La Chât with six ESP (extended support programme) students from another school. These students did activities with the children in Mme Richard’s class, they had lunch and then they had a drama activity with some Year 12 students and their teacher, Mike Pasternak. This was challenging for some of Mme Richard’s students, who were only seven years old. However they did some research and gained a lot from the experience. This became very apparent one day on a school trip to Vallorbe. Encountering a group of ESP adults, the children in Mme Richard’s class were perfectly at ease speaking to them, whereas the children from another class were very nervous. Mme Richard was very heartened by this.
Another memory that Mme Richard shared, was profoundly moving and clearly had a huge impact on her, as she explained in French. ‘Suite à un accident un temps de Noël, j’ai du aller chez le physio deux fois par semaine, et three mamans de la classe ont proposé de m’aider. Elles m’ont amené à chaque rendez-vous, ont patienté tout le long, puis m’ont ramené.Et puis, dès que j’ai repris le travail, les parents de ma classe se sont organisés pour me préparer le diner à emporter tous les soirs.J’ai vraiment ressenti ce que voulais dire l’esprit d’entraide de la communauté de la Chât et cela a été une expérience extraordinaire dans tous les sens du terme.’
From 2008-2018, Mme Richard became Vice Principal of the Primary school, initially in a part time capacity, and then full time in preparation for the new school building opening. This was a time of huge change. The Primary went from 314 to 530 students; the bilingual programme was introduced; there were 1000 job applications to deal with; Novae had to be consulted on a daily basis; and new transport arrangements had to be put in place. In short, everything had to be reinvented, whilst trying to maintain the spirit of the school as it had been. On an individual level, Mme Richard was reluctant to leave the classroom as she loved teaching so much, but there were no regrets. The Primary Principal, Jennifer Armstrong, placed her trust in her. Mme Richard had seven thoroughly enjoyable years in the new building, learning a huge amount along the way. In her husband’s words, she was ‘comme un poisson dans l’eau.’
On the brink of retirement, Mme Richard has time to reflect on what she adores about her job: working with the children, talking to them and helping them find new strategies; always seeing the best in them; if a child has issues it is often because of a good reason; collaborating with the parents – the support of parents always benefits the child; running the Student Council – what started as a ‘Bureau des Plaintes’ for some students, has led to some really good projects, such the Unicef Breakfasts of Solidarity, mini-conference in Zurich, involvement with the Strategic Planning Committee. And the parts of the job she will not miss? Dealing with teacher absences and timetabling!
As a parent, Mme Richard’s four daughters all attended La Chât at one time or another, two graduating with the Maturité and two with the IB Diploma. They are all bilingual, independent, open-minded and curious. Annick is now a teacher herself and hopes to ‘trust (her) students the way (she) was trusted by (her) teachers.’
Looking to the future, Mme Richard has no intentions of slowing down. Teaching the PYP has shown her that life needs to be balanced. She will have more time to spend with her family, enjoy her house and nature, and indulge in her passion of horse riding as well as new activities such as sailing and cycling. Mme Richard also intends to write and continue coaching.
Mme Richard ended on a note of thanks to Jennifer Armstrong and Carine Lagacé, ‘the dream team’. They all had different strengths and together they moved the school forward whilst at the same time, they helped her grow.
As she spoke, the warmth she feels towards her students, her colleagues and the La Châtaigneraie community shone throughout. She will be sorely missed.