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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: From family farm to special education teacher

May 18, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent , Lake Placid News

HAMMOND - Jennifer McGregor still lives on the McGregor family farm where she grew up on Pleasant Valley Road in Hammond, a town perched on the St. Lawrence River about halfway between Ogdensburg and the Thousand Islands.

The farm was originally built by her great-grandparents at the turn of the 20th century, and Jennifer counts herself as the fourth generation to live on it.


Article Photos

Jennifer McGregor and students with special needs at the winter Special Olympics in 1992. Photo courtesy of Jennifer McGregor.

McGregor Dairy Farm

According to Jennifer's research and records at the Hammond Museum, the McGregors emigrated from Scotland to North America in 1854, seeking land of their own. Her great-great-grandfather was a blacksmith by trade, but ended up dairy farming when he landed in Hammond, and Jennifer says that's the tradition that's stuck.

By the 1960s, when Jennifer was a child, the family had been milking and breeding Holstein dairy cattle for generations.

"It was a typical farm, a family farm, which you don't see too much of anymore. It was milk producing, and we cut hay and grew crops for the animals."

Jennifer says that when she was a child, the family had about 35-40 cows, a yearly "beefer" - or male calf raised for meat, and big gardens. She grew up drinking raw milk and helping with daily chores. As a horse lover, she ended up with the task of saddling up a horse and collecting the cows for milking each afternoon following school. She also helped take care of the calves and other young animals as a child, and as soon as she was old enough to help milk, she did that, too.

"I milked every day. In high school - I always wondered how I did this - I always got up early and helped to milk and then went to school afterward. Probably like 5 or 5:30 in the morning I'd go milk and be at school by 7:30 or 8 o'clock. It was a tough schedule, but I think it helped make me the person I've been my whole life."

Jennifer loved the cows, and she says if anyone was going to take over the farm, it would have been her. But she had another love to pursue, and the same year Jennifer decided to go to college - 1973 - is the year her father decided to close down the farm's operations. The love she chose was teaching.

The path to special education

"I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was really young."

What she was a little fuzzier on was exactly what she wanted to teach. Her first thought was music, as it was one of her passions, but Jennifer eventually switched to early education. She substitute taught for a few years, and started teaching elementary classes in 1980. For a few years, she tried out special education, and says that's what really felt right - something clicked. So she went back to school and got her certification in special education.

"That's where I kind of found my niche. The classroom setting, and getting to work with the kids one-on-one, and getting to see the light bulb come on when they got it; that was very rewarding."

Jennifer was hired by Jefferson County BOCES to teach special education in 1985, at the Thousand Islands Central School.


Rewards and challenges

She says the trick of her job was finding the unique path for each child she worked with the path that acknowledged a disability but found a way around or through it.

But that could take time and patience, and she worked with so many different students with such wildly varying needs - from blindness to autism to dyslexia. She says one of the skills she developed was the ability "of looking at things in different ways for different people and different personalities."

That was also the biggest challenge - realizing the uniqueness of each student, but still managing to lead them in group activities and in a classroom format. Jennifer led a lot of trips for her kids - from cross country skiing to the Special Olympics - which she was particularly fond of, since it helped her students bond with one another and have the opportunity to make new friends from other places.

Jennifer says her last decade of teaching was the hardest in some ways, as standardized testing became more of a focus.

"It seemed like we spent so much time during the school year getting them ready for some test they were going to take. And for me that took me away from all the fun project things that I had done over the years that I felt the students learned from, that prepared them to walk out the door into life."

It was especially difficult to watch how stressed her kids would get about taking tests. What Jennifer could do was teach them ways to cope - testing strategies that would help them control their stress and fear, so they ...

"... could give it the best shot that they could."

Jennifer retired from teaching in 2010, after 25 years with the Thousand Islands Central School District.



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