Unsung Hero: Janet Kandoian, the indomitable 'Miss K'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The year: 1971.

The setting: a fourth-grade class at the Willard School.

The question from one of the students to the young, new teacher: “Just how old are you, anyway?”

Janet Kandoian, known as “Miss K” to many students, well remembers her first class and that particular question.

“It was a hard year, because there was a wide range of students, and I was new to teaching,” Kandoian said. “I was kind of the ‘new kid’ at the school, and I gave the students lots of freedom.

“The children had been accustomed to sitting in rows of desks, but I arranged them in pods of four or five. I had them work in groups to create murals for the bulletin boards as final projects for units. And we sang lots of songs, some of which came from camp with me, others just caught the kids’ imaginations like ‘Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie.’”

Kandoian is now in her 42nd year of teaching. She taught for the first seven years at the Willard School until it was torn down, and she has taught at the Frank I. Brown School for the last 35 years, although she taught at another school for one year while Brown was being renovated.

She estimated that she’s taught more than 800 students, and that she keeps up with at least 100 of them.

Her students have gone on to pursue a variety of careers: doctors and lawyers, plumbers and electricians, teachers and coaches. Many of them have stayed in Maine, but others have left the state or gone overseas. Shana Kieran, for example, served as deputy public officer at the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, and she’s currently back in the states learning Hebrew in order to take a posting in Israel.

Back to the beginning: Why teaching?

“I graduated from college in the late ’60s, when there was a lot of talking about making the world better,” Kandoian said. “I wanted to actually do something to move things along.”

And why did this New Jersey native move to Maine?

“I moved to Maine because I wanted to work somewhere where I could live on my own,” she said. “In the late ’60s many of us contemplated adventures of various kinds. Mine was leaving suburbs, familiar cities, and a large, warm extended family to come to a place that was home to me from the beginning. The ‘on my own’ part was even more important than the ‘adventure’ part.”

Kandoian has witnessed many changes over the years, some of which she applauds while others give her pause. She enjoys the greater diversity of students, she said, and easy access to information via computers can prove helpful.

On the other hand, she is concerned that it’s more difficult today for children to learn self-reliance.

“In the ’70s, children were free to roam in their neighborhoods on bikes and on foot, to play pick-up games, to explore on their own,” Kandoian said. “As teachers, we’re successful if our students don’t need us any more. It’s essential for teachers – and parents – to help kids become more independent, more self reliant.”

A conversation with Kandoian confirms that she retains her passion for teaching and for life.

“I love that phrase, ‘It was a delicious day,’” shes said, “which came, I think, from E.B. White’s book, ‘The Trumpet of the Swan.’”

Kandoian said she experiences “delicious days” when she encounters her former students around town.

“I love seeing their eyes light up when they see me and remember their childhood and begin talking about their time in my class,” she said. “I love being part of my warm extended family in South Portland.”

She also retains the sense of humor so vital for all of us, especially teachers.

“This year one of my students asked, ‘Just how old are you, anyway?’,” she said. “So there you go: I’ve evolved from being the new kid to the senior citizen.”

Sidebar Elements

Janet Kandoian in her classroom at the Brown School in South Portland: “As teachers, we’re successful if our students don’t need us any more. It’s essential for teachers – and parents – to help kids become more independent, more self reliant.”

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.