Honoring Retiring Teacher – Don Henchel

By Al Daniel

On four occasions—one for every decade he has devoted to teaching Montessori in the Research Triangle—the name Don Henchel came up when a Montessori Community School alum reminisced on their time here for the MCS blog’s Alumni Stories series.

“Don Henchel, my Lower Elementary school teacher (first, second, and third grade), taught me to express myself with bravery and freedom,” said Greta Abbey ’14 when reached for the series’ first installment in 2018. “Among a number of lessons that fostered these qualities, he had us regularly memorize and recite poetry. I also attended his drama camps each summer and learned about each and every aspect of a performance. His passion for teaching guided each lesson, and this also served to encourage me to echo that passion.”

Abbey’s best friend from MCS, Grace Detwiler ’14, likewise followed their Lower Elementary teacher’s encouragement to a long-term passion.

“Don Henchel was definitely the teacher who kick-started my love of reading,” said the English major at Colorado State University. “Not only did he begin reading the first Harry Potter novel to my class when I was in first grade, but he also introduced me to Greek mythology, which remains one of my academic interests to this day. I would not hesitate to say that my entire first-grade class became avid readers as a result of his teaching. I am extremely grateful to have been his student, and was known back then for being the president of the Don Henchel Fan Club.”

Fellow Fan Club member Dora Pekec, who has since followed her curious streak to a range of curricular and extracurricular disciplines at Duke University, reflected on Don’s appreciable adherence to the Montessori Method’s student-centered approach.

“He really just always would ask us questions,” she said, “and that’s how we learned, instead of forcing us to think why something was interesting.”

But naturally, to maximize the enrichment, Pope Road was and is a two-way Q-and-A path. By Kathleen Allden’s fond recollection, Don never tired of fielding a student’s queries.

“Don’s ‘question chair’ sticks out in my mind,” she said when asked about her defining MCS memories for her blog story. “It was, according to my parents, created in response to my incessant stream of questions, but I think it was there before me. To me the chair represents the respect Don had for our curiosity, no question was too big or too small. If I had one hundred questions that day he was there to answer them.”

But now that he is capping his career of 40 years—with the last 16 at MCS, split evenly between Lower and Upper Elementary—Don deserves a breather. This is the time and space to stream incessant questions at the MCS students and staffers who grew under his wing in the classroom and relished his entertaining approach to everything from the Geography Bee to the Mini Olympics.

To that end, we have caught back up with Detwiler, along with three of Don’s former co-teachers in the Elementary buildings: Shelly Lyons of Lower Elementary and Lindsay Porter and Kalpu Shah (with whom Don also worked at the Montessori School of Raleigh) of Upper Elementary.

On the origins and activities of the Don Henchel Fan Club

Grace: “The Don Henchel Fan Club, to the best of my memory, involved the majority of my first-to-third grade class of Room 303 (2006 to 2008). Namely, the members were myself, Greta Abbey, Hank Kelly, Dora Pekec, Anna Alferman, and Maya Murphy. I suppose we considered ourselves to be Don’s ‘inner circle’ in the class, and I would imagine he remains all of our favorite teacher to this day.

“Our friendships formed around a kind of reading cult that began when Don read The Hobbit and Harry Potter in class and directed us towards Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (and from there a deep dive into Greek Mythology).

“At this time, I am still only in contact with Greta, and I’m sure she would agree that Don was like a third parent to us both. We collectively referred to him as ‘DumbleDon’ a reference to the beloved headmaster from the Harry Potter series. While I can’t remember the exact circumstances of me becoming president of the fan club, there is no doubt it had something to do with him lovingly giving me the nickname Alvin (after Alvin and the Chipmunks) due to my incredibly squeaky voice at the time.”

On Don’s approach to pedagogy

Lindsay: “Enthralling is exactly the word. He keeps the students guessing, which keeps their attention. He’s a chill, laid-back guy, but an entertainer at heart, and students and teachers alike enjoy it immensely.”

Grace: “The best way I can describe Don’s approach to pedagogy is that aside from attending to our academic needs and learning, Don was incredibly dedicated to getting to know us all deeply as people. He always encouraged independence and maturity in us, while simultaneously allowing us to experience the whimsical delight of childhood in a safe and supportive environment.

“Don always encouraged us to pursue the subjects in school that interested us most, whether that was Greta and I’s research project on leeches or our class’s inexplicable fascination with trilobites. My memories from that time are nothing short of magical—the iguana Smaug, Don’s Green Man mythology, and our constant classroom Beatles soundtrack coming to mind.”

On how Don actively typifies his beliefs in “keeping a healthy perspective on how each student learns” and “keeping the balance between structure and creativity.”

Lindsay: “Don is one of the most creative and spontaneous teachers I’ve ever met. He’s got a story for every situation. He knows and appreciates each student as an individual, and uses humor to connect with them and make them feel special.”

Grace: “One of Montessori’s greatest strengths is the way in which it can cater education to any student’s style of learning. As a teacher, Don typified this philosophy. As I’m sure he’ll remember, not every student in our class was as easy to wrangle as the fan club, but Don always had love and empathy for us all.

“Structure and creativity are perfect words to capture the binaries that exist in Don’s teaching style. There were days when our little hippie commune would coexist in peace and tranquility, and days when only a bellowed ‘silence’ could get us all back into line.

“Six-to-eight-year-olds are terrible and wonderful, and Don managed to keep us all sane, including himself. I learned more about myself and the world around me in that one room than I ever have since, and I am grateful to Don every day for that.

“I’m sorry to say that I’ve held on to more emotional memories than academic ones, but I can say with full confidence that my time in 303 shaped my future as a student of life forever. The best way I can phrase it is that Don as a teacher taught me how to be a better student. It was an honor to learn from him.”

On Don’s question chair

Shelly: “When Don wasn’t teaching a lesson, he sat at his square table (which he still uses to this day) and students came to him if they had a question. (Some teachers walk around the room and go to the students’ work places when they have a question.) If Don was busy helping one child at his table, the next child in line would wait in his ‘question chair’ until it was his/her turn. More often than not children who had questions would accumulate more quickly than he could empty his waiting chair and soon there would be a line of children waiting to talk with him.”

On how working alongside Don on a daily basis shapes a fellow educator

Shelly: “I learned a lot from Don, just as everyone does from their co-teacher, both what works well and what could be done in a better way. Don modeled co-teaching with respect and kindness at the forefront. He also demonstrated great loyalty as a friend and colleague.

“Teaching with Don I always felt supported, respected, valued and appreciated, every day and in every way. He always had my back and I knew I could always count on him. Don is a true friend, terrific colleague, and outstanding, big-hearted human. He helped me be a better teacher, be more confident, and understanding many aspects of Montessori teaching in a deeper way than I had previously.

“I also learned a great deal about the beginning of the Earth, prehistoric animals, and early humans from Don. He taught me a lot about dramatic storytelling. And through watching him, I got better at it myself (though I still don’t compare to him at all!)

“Don basically simply helped me grow as a teacher in many ways and I will always be grateful for the years we co-taught 303 together!”

Lindsay: “Don has such a wealth of wisdom to share, and he’s been an amazing mentor to me. He has given me great advice as well as some wonderful Montessori materials he’s collected that I’m looking forward to incorporating in our classroom next year. We’ve found ourselves paired up for Senior Ex as well as most of our Cultural units, and we make a great team! I’m going to miss him every day!”

Kalpu: “Don’s gift is storytelling! A masterful storyteller, he can weave tales in which all can get lost. He has a myriad stories about his childhood and has experiences from his travel abroad that all make it into his storytelling. An avid Beatles fan, he would teach the children the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ That was my introduction to Western music and Western culture as well.

“A very kind-hearted person, he was very accepting of this fresh-off the boat novice and went out of his way to help me assimilate. For that, I am eternally grateful to Don.

“During my eight years of working with him as his assistant, I learned a lot about Montessori education, parent communication, classroom management but I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to lesson giving. I would observe Don when he gave lessons, trying to understand what concept the manipulation of the material was brought forth and then badger him till he allowed me to present the material. I became skilled at creating supplementary materials and my passion for Montessori continued to grow.”

On watching and learning from Don as an up-and-coming educator

Kalpu: “I first met Don in 1988 where I went to MSR for an interview with him for the position of his assistant. I had taken a long time to get ready for the interview, making sure I dressed as a professional, carrying my diplomas and transcripts in a file, and climbing up the small hill to the Children’s House buildings in my high heels.

“As I near the top of the hill, a classroom door opens and out walks this ‘giant’ — a very tall guy with very long hair and a very bushy and long beard. He looks over at me and says, ‘Are you Kalpu? Do you want the job? You got the job!’ and turns around and walks with the children to the playground. My interview lasted 30 seconds!

“Once in the classroom with Don though, the gentle giant side emerged. He was so tender and caring with the children, always willing to sit in the rocking chair with a child who was having a rough morning and always trying to get them to smile.”

On the privilege of working with Don more than once

Kalpu: “In 1993, Don decided to get his Lower Elementary training and left me with Sue Ferrari to continue teaching in Children’s House 1. After a couple of years, I decided to take my training and once again turned to Don for advice. He suggested I go to the Seacoast Center for Education in New Hampshire. I followed his advice and got my training and began my career in Upper Elementary.

“Eventually, Don left MSR for Follow the Child amidst great chaos and sadly we were less in touch with each other. In the meantime, I had become a teacher trainer for Seacoast Center and had some interns from Follow the Child which allowed us to reconnect. Eventually, Don left Follow the Child to come to MCS in 2005. We were not in touch with each other at this point.

“After a hiatus of several years, we met each other again in 2013 in NH, this time with me as his Upper Elementary Teacher Trainer. It was a hoot watching Don pull his hair out over the square roots and cube roots materials and have a meltdown over the decimal board! He was very happy at his school, MCS.

“A year or so later, there was an opening at MCS in the Upper Elementary classroom, a friend recommended I interview for the position, and lo and behold it was being Don’s co-teacher again! We made a pretty good team and fell into a good rhythm almost immediately. Don’s gift and passion continued to be in storytelling and therefore the elementary cultural curriculum held great appeal to him. He could almost make you visualize the vastness of space and the Big Bang and all the other mysteries of space. He prepares meticulously for his storytelling of the Great Lesson incorporating music, theater, and costumes to bring events to life.

“An encyclopedia of trivia, he can talk to any Upper Elementary student regarding their interest. An avid historian, he imbibes in students both a reverence for and an appreciation for the events that have shaped human history. A versatile, well rounded, humorous and laid back teacher, he is the dream teacher for students.”

On the definitive Don Henchel moment

Lindsay: “Some experiences I won’t forget about Don are playing Athena to Don’s Zeus when we studied Ancient Greece, assisting him in sharing the mystery of the Beginning of the Universe, and watching him interact with my own children in the mornings before school starts. (‘Kids love Uncle Gandalf,’ he told me, and he was right!)”