Spotlight On

EHS Alumna Gretel Coleman and student

Gretel Coleman '03

A few short weeks after becoming a teacher at Eagle Hill, Eagle Hill News spoke with Gretel Coleman about her experiences as a student at EHS and how it feels to be back on campus as a Lower School teacher.

Gretel graduated Eagle Hill in 2003. Afterward, she attended The Harvey School in Katonah, New York for five years. She received her Bachelor's Degree in Special Education from Lynchburg College and her Master's Degree from Bankstreet College in New York City.

There is something extra special about returning to work at the exact school where my self-confidence was restored, and where I was able to be successful."

 

What brought you to Eagle Hill?

When I was eleven years old and just finishing the fifth grade, it became obvious that I was falling behind in reading. Although my comprehension skills were strong, there was a large gap forming between my ability to decode and my peers. Despite being able to comprehend what I was reading, I struggled to understand how the 26 letters of the alphabet could be arranged in countless ways to form words. In other words, my ability to decode was rather weak. When a teacher called on me to read out loud, I would shut down and refuse to speak, or I would have to excuse myself so my teacher and classmates would not see me cry. However, when comprehension questions were asked, my hand was always raised, and I felt confident in the answers I produced. Teachers were often amazed by my answers even though I had forfeited my turn to read. In terms of my writing, my ideas were strong, but my sentences required a great deal of editing in order to be grammatically correct. During the final months of fifth grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I remember my parents telling me “You are dyslexic, you are not stupid, your brain requires information to learn and it processes in a unique way from your peers. But, you are not stupid.” It was a relief to have a reason or an answer to why there was a gap in my reading and writing. With this news my parents found Eagle Hill, where I would spend the next two years.When I was eleven years old and just finishing the fifth grade, it became obvious that I was falling behind in reading. Although my comprehension skills were strong, there was a large gap forming between my ability to decode and my peers. Despite being able to comprehend what I was reading, I struggled to understand how the 26 letters of the alphabet could be arranged in countless ways to form words. In other words, my ability to decode was rather weak. When a teacher called on me to read out loud, I would shut down and refuse to speak, or I would have to excuse myself so my teacher and classmates would not see me cry. However, when comprehension questions were asked, my hand was always raised, and I felt confident in the answers I produced. Teachers were often amazed by my answers even though I had forfeited my turn to read. In terms of my writing, my ideas were strong, but my sentences required a great deal of editing in order to be grammatically correct. During the final months of fifth grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I remember my parents telling me “You are dyslexic, you are not stupid, your brain requires information to learn and it processes in a unique way from your peers. But, you are not stupid.” It was a relief to have a reason or an answer to why there was a gap in my reading and writing. With this news my parents found Eagle Hill, where I would spend the next two years.

What did you learn at Eagle Hill that helped you manage your learning differences?

In just two quick years here at Eagle Hill, I was able to build a tool kit that would help me see my learning difference as a strength, rather than a weakness. Most importantly, I learned that I could learn. As I gained and restored confidence in myself and in my work, I saw that my disability simply meant differently abled. In other words, I was just as intelligent as my friends from my old school, I just needed the information presented in a different way. The second most important tool I learned was how to break tasks down into more manageable pieces. This is not to be confused with having easier work, as it was still the same work, just broken down into chunks. I also learned how to prioritize my work, and what it meant to manage my time. 

Tell us about your educational journey after Eagle Hill.

After graduating from Eagle Hill in 2003, I attended The Harvey School in Katonah, New York, for five years. Harvey supported my learning style by offering small class size and a devoted faculty and staff. In 2008, I graduated from Harvey and began my first year at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA. At Lynchburg, I studied Special Education as well as General Education for early childhood. I am extremely thankful for the student teaching opportunities I had. I had the privilege of teaching in inner city schools, as well as schools designed for those who are severely and profoundly mentally as well as physically handicapped as well as autistic. Once again, I was reminded of the power behind people who are differently abled, and will forever cherish all that these students at this school taught me about life. Immediately after college, I went on to graduate school, at Bankstreet College in Manhattan, New York. Here I continued to study both Special and General Education at the early childhood level. During my graduate years, I taught in an ICT first grade, ICT kindergarten, as well as a therapeutic preschool. Throughout these experiences, I was once again reminded of the power behind differently abled people. After graduate school, I was hired as a long-term sub as a reading specialist, before being asked to join the second-grade team at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. After teaching second grade, I taught kindergarten and then fourth grade at the Gateway School in Manhattan. Early in 2019, I left The Gateway School and joined Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT. This decision of joining mid-year is one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Words cannot even begin to describe how thankful I am to be able to work at the exact school that gave me the tools necessary to find success. It is of the highest of honors to be able to join those that taught me here at Eagle Hill.

Any words of advice for current Eagle Hill students?

Regardless of how old you are when you come to Eagle Hill, or how many years you spend here, always remember your roots and visit! Incredible friendships are formed here - not just in the classroom - but on the field, in the gym, at your lunch table, or in the dorm. Eagle Hill faculty and staff return year after year to empower so many students. Always remember your success starts here.  

What made you want to be a teacher?

My greatest inspiration for becoming a teacher is my parents, as they are teachers as well. Combined, they have over fifty years of experience and continue to love what they do. My mom has taken on a variety of roles during her career such as fourth grade teacher, lower school math specialist, the reading specialist for third and fourth grade, as well as was an active member of the school’s admission staff. My dad has also held a range of positions within a school. He has taught high school history, high school special education, was head of the learning center, created and ran a night school program for troubled teens, and served as a mentor for new teachers. Whether I was watching first hand, or was hearing about their days at the dinner table, I was always fascinated to learn about how they had made a difference in someone’s life. I have several memories of students coming back to the school they attended, and thanking my parents for what they had done for them. Those two words, thank you, are ones a teacher never forgets.

Even though I was diagnosed with having two learning disabilities as a child, I always viewed school in a positive light. Having two learning disabilities was my second inspiration for wanting to become a teacher. Rather than giving up when work became challenging, I learned different strategies to help me navigate and become successful in life.

How is teaching at Eagle Hill different from your other teaching experiences?

One of the most classic lines in media as well as in literature reads “there is no place like home.” There is something extra special about returning to work at the exact school where my self-confidence was restored, and where I was able to be successful after encountering a rather difficult academic period. The power and comfort that comes with having attended this school is a constant reminder of how hard these students are working. When I first came to shadow a handful of teachers here at EHS, I was amazed by how many of my former teachers were still here. Once I was hired to join the Eagle Hill community, I knew that my hard work was paying off. Seeing so many familiar faces, as well as knowing the layout of all the buildings allowed me to be able to fully concentrate on my teaching, or my purpose for being here.



Alex Austin '84

What brought you to Eagle Hill?

I was in fifth grade at Greenwich Academy, and I still wasn’t reading or writing. I remember taking a math test and getting kicked out of class for speaking out loud. I continued – verbally – taking the test in the hall. The teacher came out and realized I was SAYING the correct answers, but I was writing gobbledygook. I was sent to Eagle Hill for five days of testing, and the testers were lovely people. I didn’t get picked on or derided at all. Those five days were some of the best days of my grade school experience. I don’t know exactly what they told my parents after the testing was done, but I do remember hearing “Good and bad news. The good news is your daughter isn’t stupid. The bad news is your daughter is severely dyslexic.” That’s when I started my two years at EHS.

What did you learn at Eagle Hill that helped you manage your learning differences?

There was another time before Eagle Hill that I was kicked out of a math classroom for arguing that 1+1 did not have to equal 2. I tried to explain – I held up my apple to show it wasn’t a single apple pie – it could be shared or mashed. The teacher didn’t like my explanation very much. I also got in trouble for asking that teacher how zero could exist.

Another example - do you recall the Sesame Street game "which one of these does not belong here"? I do. There were 4 squares, each with a child drawn in it. Three children have hats and one does not, so ... the "correct" answer is the one without the hat. But for me, I couldn't answer the question. One of the images was yellow, one was brown, two where peach. Each had a different shirt on. One was a girl. One was a brown cartoon boy, and he had no hair when the other three did. The girl cartoon had pigtails, where the others didn't. Two of the shirts had collars, but one was in a sweater. One was in a button-down. One shirt was striped vertically, another horizontally. As you look, there are more and more differences, and even if you pare it down ... you still have one peach girl. One brown, one peach, and one yellow boy. So, could it be the single girl? Or the single brown boy? Or what about the single yellow boy? Or, even the only peach boy, because he is the only one of the four that is both peach and male ...  
For one who saw the world as I did (and do), the answer that most people came to was not obvious. The question was not specific enough. I saw more than a quick glance, and when asked a question, I tend to gather more details to be able to give a quantifiable answer.

Eagle Hill taught me to translate from “normal speaking” to my own and, more importantly, how to translate how I think into what others can understand. The most important part for me were the classes where the teachers would give an example of a question in a “normal” school situation and then proceed to explain what the teacher actually meant by the question, and what they were expecting for an answer. While I still may argue that those questions are vague and open to interpretation, I will say that understanding how to do that made school a much easier experience for me.

Beyond academics, what made Eagle Hill different from your other schools?

Eagle Hill was the first time in my childhood I was treated as an individual, based on both my merits and behaviors. If I defended myself, I was not singled out as a trouble maker. If I did cause trouble, I would be expected to explain it, and if I could not, I would be disciplined fairly. Being treated as a person, instead of a problem, changed my life. I worked hard to live up to that wonderful experience, and it has formed much of what I am today.

Tell us about your educational journey after Eagle Hill.

My next school held me back a year because of the dyslexia, and then had to get advanced teachers by eighth grade because they couldn’t keep up. Because of Eagle Hill, I did excel academically. I also only got through that school because of the respectful environment I had had before. Eagle Hill School gave me such a foundation that I got through those three years and went on to a prep boarding school, where I also excelled. Eagle Hill helped me to create the strongest foundation on which my entire future not only could sit, but could be adapted and grown.

Tell us about starting your own business.

After I finished getting my third degree, I started a small manufacturing business (high-end crafts/artist/manufacturing).  I chose art and metal because I’m not the most outgoing person, and being the maker appealed to me. It went great for 25 years. However, being an artist means you do trade shows, it means you deal with the public … what it actually means is that you are not actually your own boss, but every customer is your boss. That is exhausting – satisfying – but exhausting. I exhibited at art shows, exhibitions, galleries, and museums. I traveled the world with my craft. That was lovely. I even went and exhibited in Paris twice, which was awesome.

And now you're a technical writer, right? What is that like? What do you do on a daily basis?

After 20+ years in my trade, I decided I needed a shift. I went back to school for engineering, and now work as an engineer and technical writer. I spend my days researching, writing, and playing in Photoshop. I made the manuals no one wants to read. I run redlines (errors) to other engineers, if a design change didn’t get included or continue as it should have.

The very problem with seeing too much, digging too deep, and needing clarification and clear parameters … the things that made school nearly impossible … those are the same reasons I am fantastic at my job.

Any words of advice for current Eagle Hill students?

Go forward, and when you do look back, look back with pride – because every step towards your future is built upon what you were. Each and every person you surprise is another step, and a kudos to you, for learning to adapt and communicate. Some people may never fully understand you, but you will leave Eagle Hill with the ability to communicate, to learn, and to become so many things. And if you change your mind, if you decide you need to shift, do it. If you are at Eagle Hill, you are exceptional. Just accept that and take on the world.

That isn’t to say it will be easy. What works for you today may not always be a tool worth using. Being detail oriented can be an asset, but it can also earn you a “D” or even an “F” if you disregard what the professor is actually asking (which you will only understand because of Eagle Hill!).

There are moments to outshine the world, and other times when you must put a dimmer on the bulb. These are the moments that take the most time in learning. But with Eagle Hill in your corner, people will no longer be as confusing as they used to be. Other people might not learn how to perfectly communicate with you, but you have learned to communicate with them. That may, at first, seem unfair. It is unfair.

You now have an unfair advantage – the ability to adapt that others did not get the opportunity to learn. You have the advantage of having a teacher who learned how you learn and teaching you in methods that fit you. You have the unfair advantage of taking specialized classes to help take your learning methods into “normal” classrooms. You have an absolutely AWESOME unfair advantage.

I hope it brings you as much awesome and as much joy as it has me.



ASHLEY MUDGE '97

What brought you to Eagle Hill?

I was having a difficult time learning to read. At my prior school, I was often pulled out of class to work on my reading skills, but the process wasn’t clicking. My parents decided that I should visit EHS for the day, and my mom still remembers to this day that when I got into the car, I said, “Mom, I have to go to this place, there are kids just like me here.” I felt like EHS was a place where I was comfortable and that I could be successful.

What did you learn at Eagle Hill that helped you manage those challenges?

I learned that it is okay to make mistakes, and everything isn’t going to be perfect, and that’s okay. Also, study skills was one of the most helpful classes that I took during my time at EHS. All through high school and even in college, I used the different tools and organizational skills, which EHS taught me.

Beyond academics, what did you do or try at Eagle Hill that you may not have at another school?

During my time at EHS, I played soccer and basketball. I continued to play both sports all throughout high school. I loved playing on the JJV soccer team at EHS, and if it wasn’t for those earlier years on that team, I don’t think I would have tried out for a variety sport in high school. On the JJV team I learned to enjoy the sport, made great friendships with my teammates and coaches, and learned a number of important skills. I also participated in the Eagle Hill talent show, which is something very much outside of my comfort zone, but because I felt supported by the community, I was able to get on that stage with my friends.

Tell us about your educational journey after Eagle Hill.

After Eagle Hill, I attended Rumsey Hall, a junior boarding school in Washington Depot, Connecticut, for eighth and ninth grade. Rumsey Hall was a great transition school before I went to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where I received my high school diploma. After high school, I thought that I would go to a smaller liberal arts school in New England, but I attended American University in Washington D.C., where I majored in Elementary Education with a minor in Special Education. Seven years later, I would attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, when I decided to make a career change. Lastly, in 2014, I attended the Start-Up Institute in Jackson, Wyoming. The Start-Up Institute, an intensive entrepreneurship program, is designed to provide students with proven tools, frameworks, and hands-on experiential, practical courses dedicated to working on and launching your own business idea.

And you came back and taught at Eagle Hill, right? What was that like?

I came back to EHS to start my teaching career because I wanted to learn from the best, and again, felt like it was a place where I could be successful. I was able to have amazing people like Maureen Dumser, Abby Hanrahan, Dave Sylvestro, Maria DiPalma, Liza Jarombek, and Jenn Harkins be my mentors. It was also amazing to be on the other side and to help students who were struggling to find success in school. I could easily relate to my students, as I had gone through similar struggles.

Tell us about you now - what brought you to Lancaster? What made you want to open a shop?

I moved to Lancaster to be closer to my sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces. It also felt like a good fit for my business, Because I Like U, a gift boutique to find unique gifts. Because I Like U began when I would go into stores and I would be uninspired. I started the business by writing a blog about different gift ideas. There were more and more people who wanted to buy the items that I was sharing. After gaining a following, I started my own online store and taking part in a few trade shows. I had a great response and started looking for a brick and mortar location. It has always been a dream of mine to have a store, and I have learned so much owning my own business.

Any words of advice for current Eagle Hill students?

Never give up. There have been many times in my life when I thought I wouldn't be able to do something and wanted to give up, but I was able to persevere and it is so rewarding to accomplish something you didn't think you were going to be able to. Lastly, don't let your disability define who you are - it is only one part of who you are. As a kid, I focused on my disability, but as an adult, I don't think about it much and when I do I think it makes me special.

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