Highlighting our Faculty: A Conversation with Ms. Paluszek

A 2013 graduate of Vermont Academy, Mikaela has returned to join VA's Science Department. She earned her Bachelor's of Arts and Sciences in Health Science from the University of Maine while competing as a Nordic/cross-country skier internationally for the Maine Winter Sports Center. Mikaela began her career in education at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, where she taught biology and anatomy while coaching mountain biking and varsity sailing for four years. During this time, Mikaela began her Nordic coaching career at the Berkshire School, assisting in developing their Nordic team and its inclusion in the Lakes Region and NEPSAC athletic events. Mikaela spends her summers as a staff member at the Wolfeboro Camp School as the waterfront director. 

Mikaela is looking forward to continuing her educational career at Vermont Academy, where she developed her love for the outdoors and science. Any time not spent in the classroom prepping her science classes is spent outdoors, mountain biking, or cross country skiing with her dog Bleu Cheese, fondly known to her dorm as "Professor Cheese." Mikaela is very excited to be back on her home trails at VA and is looking forward to coaching students on them.

What is your Vermont Academy story?
Let me take you back to the summer of 2010 – I had just finished my 9th-grade year at the Academy for Equine Science, a local New Hampshire charter school. I was on the finance committee as a student representative. During the 3rd week of June, the finance committee held a meeting where the members were informed that the school was closing and that all students needed to find alternative schooling. At this point, I was starting to focus more on becoming a student-athlete for skiing. I wanted to be a competitive racer, specifically for Nordic skiing and biathlon. My ski club coach connected me with the Vermont Academy Nordic coach, and just a few weeks later, I moved into 25 House for the fall of 2010. It was a new experience for me entirely – I had come from a homeschooled family and had only attended a charter school for one year. The only point of reference I had for boarding schools was what I saw on TV shows and read in books. Looking back now and thinking about all of the stereotypes about prep school and then arriving on VA's campus, and it just being this wonderful, open, comfortable community. It felt right – it felt good to be there, so I began my Vermont Academy journey that fall.
During my time at Vermont Academy, my love for the outdoors poured into my VA academics. It allowed me to explore my passion for science and love for Vermont's surroundings while pursuing a rigorous Nordic training schedule. VA's willingness to accommodate and encouragement to participate in many local to regional events led to the development of my skiing so significantly that by my senior year at VA, I was qualifying for international biathlon competitions. It was from these experiences that I chose to pursue a university that accommodated both interests. My Nordic career continued into college at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where I competed with the Maine Winter Sports Center on their elite biathlon team. I qualified for junior world championships again and the open European championships before retiring to complete my education.
After graduating from college in 2017, I began my teaching career at the Salisbury School, an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut. This past May, an opportunity presented itself to teach at Vermont Academy, and it felt like a natural transition to return to a place that had given me so much.

How did you know you wanted to be an educator?
During my first year at UMaine, I entered the nursing program because I had a strong desire to learn more about science and the human body. But by the spring of my junior year, I had begun struggling as a nursing student, eventually realizing that there was no longer the love for learning anymore. Slowly in my mind, it became less about learning how to care for and keep people healthy and happy, but instead, it felt forced and focused. This left me in a rut at the end of my junior year and had me reconsidering where and what I should be doing with my education. 
That summer, my brother John Henry, VA class of '16, started working for the Wolfeboro Summer School. It also happened that they were seeking residential advisors. He recommended that I join the Summer Program. I remember my mom calling me and saying, "I think you'd make a great teacher." and with my senior year looming and filled with uncertainty around my course of study,  I was hesitant but ultimately decided to take the position.

On the first day, I was handed a small group of advisees, all girls, ages 9-10, and all they wanted to do was learn about things that were outside. They were so intellectually curious, fun-loving kids to be around – I realized throughout the summer how much fun it was to be outside and help guide these girls to an understanding of the world around them; helping them make connections with their surroundings to see how some living things while seeming different, are all part of the same species. These connections led to a personal rebirth of my love for learning and the beginning of a passion for teaching.

When I returned to school in the fall, I left the nursing program and pursued a BAS in Health Science. I found myself reflecting on my Vermont Academy experience – specifically my experience in the science classroom with Mr. Collins. I realized that I wanted to do what Mr. Collins did: teach science, coach something that you enjoy doing, and be in a community that supports and encourages not just students but everyone to learn and try new things every day.

"Last year, during a photosynthesis lab, one of my students turned to me as he was cutting away at some spinach; he just had this lightbulb moment of understanding, where he looked at me and said, 'Ms. P., there would be no chicken nuggets in the dining hall if we didn't have photosynthesis.' Then he just went back to doing his lab. I think about that moment a lot – it's those moments that remind me every day why I teach."
What is your classroom approach? How can you prepare students for life beyond VA?
I try to take a holistic approach by finding a balance between what students need to know, want to know, and what they need to know to be successful. The goal is for them to feel comfortable, healthy, and prosperous.
For example, we have many student-athletes on this campus, and it is essential for those who take Kinesiology to know how to use their body most efficiently and how to take care of it. One lesson we focus on is the eleven systems in the body – all are very important. However, one system my students often overlook is the digestive system. Many students forget that their performance on the field and in the classroom has a lot to do with nutrition and fueling their bodies. Thinking about the bones and muscles in the body is essential for high school athletes to understand how their bodies move, but they don't necessarily understand how or why they get the energy to do so. These Kinesiology lessons allow them to think deeper than their musculoskeletal system. When my students graduate from VA, my hope is for students to understand themselves better, take care of not just their bodies but be willing and open to trying everything inside and outside the classroom at least once. 

Can you talk a bit about your skiing experience and how you plan to support our Nordic ski program?
While attending Vermont Academy, I started competing in biathlon on the US Junior National Team in World Championships. I continued to compete for the same team in college and traveled to the Open European Championships one year. My approach to skiing developed while training and racing at VA, which influenced how I now approach my classroom – everything in and outside your body has a best use, and it all interconnects.
Building on what I mentioned earlier about taking a holistic approach to classes and life, I encourage my skiers to understand that Nordic competition and lifestyle are just as important off the snow as with ski boots on. One concept that led me to be successful as a student-athlete both at Vermont Academy and in college was the approach my VA ski coaches had with a willingness to support not only myself but the team as a whole, and how they often would instill that not only is it important for athletes to "be good" but to treat training and competing almost like an ongoing experiment. They advocated using an approach similar to the scientific method during practice to help us understand how to excel and get better. If a workout doesn't go well one day, try doing it differently the next and see if it improves.
My goal is to model and cultivate that same team culture of comprehensive support. Over time, Vermont Academy skiers will continue to identify their routine of what makes them successful before, during, and after a race and being students of the world. As a coach, I think that is a fundamental lesson for young athletes and a lesson that continues to serve me well.
What does it mean to be a successful student at VA?
 As a graduate of Vermont Academy, I know firsthand what it feels like to leave and thrive in college and beyond. The definition of a successful student is different for everyone, and my story of leaving here feeling good about myself came from the support and encouragement of my amazing teachers.

Now, if you were to ask my brother (John Henry '16) and my sister (Alexandra '20) what their definitions of success at VA looked like, it would be much different than mine. Two prime examples of this belief are that my brother was a member of the infamous bread club and now is a phenomenal baker and makes artisan bread as gifts for his graduate school professors for holidays. After VA, he continued to pursue his academic interests and is now working towards his Master's degree in Botany at the University of Wyoming while concurrently training for the World University Games as a member of Team USA's Nordic team. My sister, once banned from our kitchen at home, is now the pie master of the family and a brilliant student of environmental science. Are these examples of successful students at VA? I believe it depends on your point of view, but to me, it demonstrates how Vermont Academy pushes us all out of our comfort zones to try new things and develop new skills that can be used anywhere and by anyone and stay with us for life.
Vermont Academy requires students to be resourceful and to be their own self-advocates, two major skills that I took with me when I graduated. Vermont Academy provides hundreds of opportunities for potential growth, but recognizing one's own potential is hard so being in an environment where stepping out of your comfort zone is encouraged and applauded is instrumental in developing the successful VA student and whole person.

This interview is one in a series spotlighting Vermont Academy educators, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, what makes their classrooms successful and what challenges them, and what it means to live and teach at Vermont Academy. 
A Virtual Event: How We Teach at Vermont Academy
Tuesday, November 2, 2021 | 7:00 p.m.
Virtual Event - Zoom

An informational webinar focusing on academics and The Vermont Academy Way: a teaching and learning method and philosophy.
Virtual International Student Panel
Thursday, November 4, 2021 | 8:00 am - 9:00 a.m.
Virtual Event - Zoom

An informational webinar focusing on the international student experience at Vermont Academy.

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  • A visit to Walpole Valley Farms

    On the last day of September, Vermont Academy students from Ms. Armiger's AP Environmental Science and Sustainable Design classes piled into a 15 passenger bus and headed off campus for a field trip to Walpole Valley Farms. Both classes are currently exploring a unit on the ecological impacts of our food system and what better way to do that than to get outside and get your hands and boots dirty! 
    It is becoming increasingly evident that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is a great way to reduce our ecological footprint... but there are rare exceptions to this rule. Fifteen years ago, Chris and Caitlin Caserta and their young family made a conscious decision to create a farm using nature and kindness as the guiding model. While most food in the US is produced using heavy inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, fossil fuels, antibiotics, growth hormones, and an underpaid labor force, you will find none of these here. Walpole Valley Farms is a pasture-based livestock operation utilizing regenerative and holistic management practices to raise healthy food for the local community while simultaneously healing and building soil, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and improving the biodiversity of the landscape.
    While Caitlin gave us a tour of the farm, students had a chance to play with happy chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats, and cows. Caitlin explained how important it is to keep the animals constantly moving onto fresh grass (modeled after the behaviors of wild herd animals). In a wild grassland ecosystem, predators such as wolves would keep the animals moving. But within these fields and forests, portable electric fencing prevents overgrazing and soil erosion. Chickens follow the cattle herd and scratch through "cow pies" in search of fly larvae-which results in the double benefit of increasing the protein intake of the chickens and keeping the fly population down for the cows. 
    There is a better and far more sustainable way for us to grow food. We hope this field trip will help our students understand the alternatives to the industrial food system to make more informed choices about what they eat and the policies that affect farms, farmers, and consumers.

Meet Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Ms. Ashley Storrow

In 2018, Ms. Ashley Storrow was introduced to the Vermont Academy community as our vocal instructor, and we’ve been lucky to have her in this role. She began writing songs as a child on a farm in Western Massachusetts where a hay wagon stood as her stage. She has developed over the years into a professional musician who has toured across the United States. Her second album with the duo “Early Risers” achieved number one ranking on national folk radio charts. Her work with immigrant populations and youth is just as impressive as her experience as a musician.

Ashley holds a Master of Arts in Intercultural Service Leadership and Management from the School for International Training’s Graduate Institute and her bachelor’s from Skidmore College is in Developmental Studies and Social Change. This education led to a career spanning program development for immigration and refugee services and college-level instruction in English as a second language. For the last few years, she has balanced her vocal instruction at VA with being a facilitator and trainer with the Greater Falls Community Justice Center in Bellows Falls, Vermont, where she developed and led groups with at-risk high school girls on topics such as bullying, healthy relationships, and female empowerment.

Ashley is well qualified to be Vermont Academy’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “What drove me to work with refugees was their deep connection to a gratitude for being alive. They’ve seen the worst that can happen to humans,” she explains. “Seeing them come to America and start over – they were the most inspiring people to be around. It was humbling and challenging. They put life into perspective.”

“My goal in life is to be a deep listener,” she continues. “To listen to people who have lesser-heard voices, helping them come to the forefront, so they have a place at the table and feel the full dignity of who they are come to life.”
Ashley is grateful for the opportunity Vermont Academy has provided a single workplace that allows her to combine her love of music with her passion for promoting justice and fairness in a way that makes diverse populations feel welcome.

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Education for Life - One Student at a Time

Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.