Veteran teacher retires ending an era for Unalaska preschool

Susan Carlisle teaching her preschool class. (Photo by Zoe Sobel/KUCB)
Susan Carlisle teaching her preschool class. (Photo by Zoe Sobel/KUCB)

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After 26 years, it’s the end of an era for Unalaska’s preschool. Teacher Susan Carlisle is retiring.

“I’m going to be 73 this summer; it’s time to quit,” Carlisle said. “My energy at the end of the day is like, ‘oh I’m tired.’ But, it is hard to leave. It’s hard to leave the island. I’ve been here 38 years, so I’m going to miss it a lot.”

Carlisle first came to the island when her husband got a job as office manager for Universal Seafood. Back then she says everyone at the company lived on a ship except for management. And there wasn’t even a bridge in town. They were supposed to be here for a year, but she says she fell in love with the island.

She left Unalaska to raise her daughter and when she returned, she had no plans on teaching. But she spoke with a former school secretary who called the superintendent about openings.

“I said well, preschool would be fun,” Carlisle said. “And when she talked to him he said the only thing I know I have open is preschool. So I came back 26 years ago and started teaching and found what I love to do.”

She had previously taught first grade in Washington. But at 40, she found, “The best job ever.”

In Carlisle’s classroom, most of the day is spent playing.

“We develop fine motor by squeezing stuff, playing in the sand, pouring, so when you have to hold that pencil and you have to sit there and color you have some strength to do it,” Carlisle said.

Over the years, she says several people from the state have visited and said this is what preschool should be.

“Whether you now how to read when you’re 3 or 4 shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life,” Carlisle said. “It’s like, ‘Can you hold a pencil yet? Do you like to sit and color maybe? Know how to cut? Can you open and close those scissors?’”

And she adds play has a lot of benefits that some people do not see.

“If they don’t have that strength when they have to sit and try to do that stuff it’s really hard for them,” Calisle said. “And they go, ‘Ack! I can’t do that.’”

In Alaska, kids have to come to school by age seven. But kindergarten and pre-school are not required. Carlisle stresses those two years are an important part of development

“These kids here that come in at three, we’re getting that brain going and working — all parts of that brain — and it will help eventually down the line,” Carlisle said.

Over her tenure, she says the percentage of children attending Unalaska’s preschool has increased. Now, she estimates it’s over 90 percent!

And after 26 years, she’s never been bored.

“I always look forward to coming to school because it’s never the same,” Carlisle said. “Kids are different. Kids that day are different. You know, and ‘I can hardly wait, we’re going to do this today and it’s going to be really fun.’”

But retirement has been calling her for a while. Her daughter and six grandkids in Oregon have been asking her to move for about four years. Plus, Carlisle’s doctor has been pushing her to leave so she can deal with some medical issues. And for about seven years, Carlisle has been telling her doctor she’ll retire next year. But this time, when she was serious, the doctor did not believe her.

“I said I’m resigning,” Carlisle said. “So she said, ‘fax me the resignation letter when you do it.’”

Even though she’s leaving, Carlisle thinks she’ll continue to work with kids.