Elaine Doss, probably West Marin’s only elementary school teacher known to ride horseback an hour and a half each way to class, retired this week after 20 years at Nicasio School.
Students and faculty celebrated her last Friday with a barbecue, potato sack race and water balloon catching contest. During a long lunch break, children’s faces were painted.
Watching her mixed-grade class go wild over an “around the world” pop quiz, it’s easy to see why Mrs. Doss will be missed. “I baked a potato for one and a half hours. How many minutes did it take to bake?” she asked.
Out of the arc of desks curling around her, two students stood, competing to answer first. “90 minutes,” one girl said. “Whoa, she’s a killer. Look out!” Ms. Doss replied. The victor made her way to the next student’s desk. “What grade and what subject?” the teacher asked, setting her gaze on the next competitor. The student chose fourth grade math. “What is 40 minus seven?” Ms Doss asked. “37!” both children responded. “40 minus seven is 33. Go back to third grade, little girl” Ms. Doss said. “Ready to redeem yourself?”
Mrs. Doss, a native of Hell’s Kitchen, the gritty midtown Manhattan neighborhood, learned the importance of children’s education, and the method in which it is delivered, before she became a teacher. In 1981, when her third-grade son was in the third through fifth mixed-grade class at Nicasio, she noticed there were students—as old as 14 — who struggled with English. Mrs. Doss, who is fluent in four languages, volunteered as an ESL teacher for the year, and was able to bring the Spanish-speaking students up to speed.
“It’s so cool because I see the students I taught and they’re grown now with their own kids” she said. “When they see me they yell ‘Maestra!’ and introduce me to whoever they’re with, saying, ‘This is the woman who taught me English.’”
A year later, Mrs. Doss was taking night classes for a teaching degree. After a seven-year stint at Marin Horizon School, she sought out a position that would provide her the benefits and pay that private school lacked. Her search brought her right back to Nicasio.
“The principal that worked there when I was volunteering as an ESL teacher was still there when I applied for a job,” she said.
Competing with over 130 other applicants, she knew that her previous work would help a lot. “The principal knew that my heart was in the right place.”
It may come as no surprise that the methods Mrs. Doss uses to teach her students are atypical. When Nicasio became a major set for the movie “Village of the Damned” in the mid-90s, she and her students created a school newspaper to cover it. “I thought it would be a great way for the students to write,” she said. “It was motivation for them to write, and to write well.”
The first issue of the monthly paper, The Nicasio News, was published in September, 1994. The last issue went out this week. “I think any other teacher would be crazy to keep it up,” she said. “But I know the students learned because when I mentioned that this week’s was our last issue, [they] said, “But what are we supposed to do with our writing?” Mrs. Doss’s students knew she was bringing a sense of purpose to their work.
It was the school paper that would help lead Mrs. Doss to her other passion, the Nicasio Historical Society. After interviewing several of the town’s old timers for the paper, Mrs. Doss hosted a dinner for them. And after a number of other gatherings, the group resolved to form a society, with Mrs. Doss as its president.
For five years she has been president of the historical society, whose goal is to collect and share the history of Nicasio with the people of the town. This year Mrs. Doss published her own book through the society, “Nicasio Children Through the Years,” which features photographs and excerpts of the children both in and outside the Nicasio School playing, riding bikes and going on field trips, dating back to 1887. Within the next year she hopes to release a lengthier history of school she began before her teaching career as a student at Sonoma State University.
When she isn’t bring out the best in her students or rekindling the history of her town, Mrs. Doss is demanding higher pay from the school district. She’s been president of the school’s union since its teachers joined in 2002. “We were the lowest paid school in Marin County,” Mrs. Doss said. After several letters requesting a pay increase, in 2009 Nicasio finally got one. “The pay bumped significantly, but it still could be better,” she said.
As far as retirement is concerned, Mrs. Doss is ready to take the plunge. “[Nicasio School] was my life work, but I kind of want to pursue other avenues in life,” she said. Her next goal is to find a venue for the historical society — a place to store its aged collections safely, and hopefully exhibit them.
In the meantime, Mrs. Doss plans on riding her three horses, swimming and running avidly. “[This is] exactly how I envisioned myself, as a little old gray-haired woman, retiring here,” she said. “Well — I’m not exactly gray-haired, but only my stylist knows why.”