Gretel Coleman graduated from Eagle Hill in 2003. She received her Bachelor's degree in special education from Lynchburg College and her Master's degree from Bankstreet College in New York City. After getting her Master's, she came back and taught at Eagle Hill for two years.
Here at Eagle Hill, we’re immensely proud of our students—past, present, and future. Most did not have their needs met in their previous school and felt defeated by a system that couldn’t lift them up. Our alums rarely mention the skills and content of their learning (though we all agree it is essential), but they recall, with uncanny accuracy, the teacher who made them feel confident, challenged, and inspired.
With that in mind, our Alumni Updates will be largely dedicated to testimonies from our graduates and their reflections on the moments that mattered and made an impact.
What brought you to Eagle Hill?
When I was eleven years old and just finishing fifth grade, it became obvious that I was falling behind in reading.
Although my comprehension skills were strong, there was a large gap forming between my ability to decode and my peers. Despite being able to comprehend what I was reading, I struggled to understand how the 26 letters of the alphabet could be arranged in countless ways to form words. In other words, my ability to decode was rather weak.
When a teacher called on me to read out loud, I would shut down and refuse to speak, or I would have to excuse myself so my teacher and classmates would not see me cry. However, when comprehension questions were asked, my hand was always raised, and I felt confident in the answers I produced.
Teachers were often amazed by my answers even though I had forfeited my turn to read. In terms of my writing, my ideas were strong, but my sentences required a great deal of editing in order to be grammatically correct.
During the final months of fifth grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I remember my parents telling me, “You are dyslexic, you are not stupid, your brain requires information to learn and its processes in a unique way from your peers. But, you are not stupid.”
It was a relief to have a reason or an answer to why there was a gap in my reading and writing. With this news, my parents found Eagle Hill, where I would spend the next two years.
What did you learn at Eagle Hill that helped you manage your learning differences?
In just two quick years here at Eagle Hill, I was able to build a tool kit that would help me see my learning difference as a strength, rather than a weakness. Most importantly, I learned that I could learn. As I gained and restored confidence in myself and in my work, I saw that my disability simply meant differently abled.
In other words, I was just as intelligent as my friends from my old school, I just needed the information presented in a different way.
The second most important tool I learned was how to break tasks down into more manageable pieces. This is not to be confused with having easier work, as it was still the same work, just broken down into chunks. I also learned how to prioritize my work, and what it meant to manage my time.
Tell us about your educational journey after Eagle Hill.
After graduating from Eagle Hill in 2003, I attended The Harvey School in Katonah, New York, for five years. Harvey supported my learning style by offering small class size and a devoted faculty and staff.
In 2008, I graduated from Harvey and began my first year at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA. At Lynchburg, I studied Special Education as well as General Education for early childhood. I am extremely thankful for the student teaching opportunities I had.
I had the privilege of teaching in inner-city schools, as well as schools designed for those who are severely and profoundly mentally and physically handicapped as well as autistic. Once again, I was reminded of the power behind people who are differently-abled, and will forever cherish all that these students at this school taught me about life.
Immediately after college, I went on to graduate school, at Bankstreet College in Manhattan, New York. Here, I continued to study both Special and General Education at the early childhood level. During my graduate years, I taught in an ICT first grade, ICT kindergarten, as well as a therapeutic preschool.
Throughout these experiences, I was once again reminded of the power behind differently-abled people.
After graduate school, I was hired as a long-term sub as a reading specialist, before being asked to join the second-grade team at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. After teaching second grade, I taught kindergarten and then fourth grade at the Gateway School in Manhattan.
Early in 2019, I left The Gateway School and joined Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT. This decision of joining mid-year is one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
Words cannot even begin to describe how thankful I am to be able to work at the exact school that gave me the tools necessary to find success. It is of the highest of honors to be able to join those that taught me here at Eagle Hill.
What made you want to be a teacher?
My greatest inspiration for becoming a teacher is my parents, as they are teachers as well. Combined, they have over fifty years of experience and continue to love what they do.
My mom has taken on a variety of roles during her career such as fourth-grade teacher, lower school math specialist, the reading specialist for third and fourth grade, as well as was an active member of the school’s admission staff.
My dad has also held a range of positions within a school. He has taught high school history, and high school special education, was head of the learning center, created and ran a night school program for troubled teens, and served as a mentor for new teachers.
Whether I was watching firsthand or hearing about their days at the dinner table, I was always fascinated to learn about how they had made a difference in someone’s life. I have several memories of students coming back to the school they attended, and thanking my parents for what they had done for them. Those two words, thank you, are ones a teacher never forgets.
Even though I was diagnosed with two learning disabilities as a child, I always viewed school in a positive light.
Having two learning disabilities was my second inspiration for wanting to become a teacher. Rather than giving up when work became challenging, I learned different strategies to help me navigate and become successful in life.
Any words of advice for current Eagle Hill students?
Regardless of how old you are when you come to Eagle Hill, or how many years you spend here, always remember your roots and visit! Incredible friendships are formed here—not just in the classroom—but on the field, in the gym, at your lunch table, or in the dorm. Eagle Hill faculty and staff return year after year to empower so many students. Always remember your success starts here.