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Teacher for life: Super tutor Helen Kidess still going strong at 90

Vin Gallo

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday. In the conference room at the far end of the Academic Success Center sits a tutor who knows all the study moves necessary when it comes to taking on the Massachusetts Teacher Education Licensure. She sits with one of her students who has only just arrived, though if the tutor herself could help it, she’d get there herself 40 minutes beforehand. Before beginning, the tutor makes a point of finalizing the date of the next session before beginning and jots the time down on a manila folder with scratch tattooed all over the back. She places the folder beside her Fiji water bottle, and her planner plotting each agenda for the week. Springfield appointments are in pink, appointments at her apartment are in yellow. Saturdays are reserved for quartet nights.

The tutor speaks in a soft and steady voice. The tone stays consistent, whether through coaching or a simple explanation of material.

She scans the student’s work with her light green eyes, above the wrinkles in her skin and behind her slightly rounded glasses, and speaks without any sharp tone: “This is not the subject. Why? … Where would the subject be?” As a tutor, it pays to always be both constructive and kind. This is all in a day’s work for Academic Success Center MTEL fundamental tutor, Helen Kidess. And she’s still doing it all at 90 years of age.

Kidess has had both an interest and focus on education for as long as she could remember. Her father taught at the Juilliard School of Music and would also hold classes in his apartment from 7-9 p.m. Each evening, Kidess would quietly push open the door to the dining room, and listen to her father teach – his blue eyes beneath bushy eyebrows alternating attention between the material and his students. Teaching is a field Kidess always had exposure to, and although occasionally struggling with school work, Kidess admired the occupation.

“[My father]  was an amazing teacher,” she said. “I was taught by my mother and my father. I enjoyed my teachers in school [as well]. I struggled, but I enjoyed most of them. I didn’t have the easiest of time writing, interestingly enough.”

Kidess was 24 years old when she arrived at Springfield from New York. The year was 1951. As a graduate of Elmira College, Kidess is not a Springfield alum, but became the campus’s first female administrator and executive assistant to the president. She has loved the college and its campus ever since arriving.

“I wouldn’t want to live in any large city today. a sense here of student responsibility for humankind and for human nature. In today’s society, that is unique.”

Kidess went on to become a teacher in the Wilbraham school district in 1967. She taught for 25 years before retiring in 1992. But Kidess’s absence from teaching would be only temporary. In 2006, at the age of 78, she returned to the Springfield College as an MTEL tutor, where she prepares students for the state test in writing.

Kidess’s family story is deeply tied to the campus, and has been for decades. Her husband, Ted Kidess (G’35, DPE ‘58), enjoyed a lifelong connection with the college, and would serve as the institution’s executive vice president. He would move on to become the founder and first director of the Doggett International Center. Helen and Ted, had one child together, Tamie Kidess Lucey (‘81, G ‘82), who is now the director of Alumni Relations. But the Springfield connection does not end there for Helen Kidess’s family. Kidess’s granddaughter, Alexandra Lucey (‘14, PSY D ‘20), now works alongside her grandmother at the Academic Success Center as the third generation.

“I’ve come to appreciate having her [close] as I’ve gotten older. She has been a constant source of love and support, for which I am extremely grateful,” said Lucey. “I think it’s really neat that she has had the opportunity to take her educational skills and apply them in a place which meant so much to her husband, and then her daughter and granddaughter.”

President Mary-Beth Cooper acknowledged the significance of the Kidess family’s heavy involvement and unique history with the school.

“I think it’s important when your family and your professional life come together,” she said. “[The Kidess’s] are a perfect example. They’ve shared a love for the same place and for the mission of the college. [Springfield] is very fortunate to have all of them as a part of our legacy.”

As an MTEL tutor, Kidess is very well liked by her peers, from students to faculty.

“Helen’s one of those people who you instantly like; she impressed me with not only her knowledge but her desire to show students support,” said Director of Academic Success Andrew Wilcox. “Her drive [is] to make sure students are well represented to become teachers. She’s not someone who minces words; she’s a straight shooter.”

Students majoring in PE, or any form of teaching must pass the MTEL’s writing exam to graduate. The difficulty of the exam varies, depending on the reading and writing ability/experience of the student. “It’s a lot of weight,” said Kidess. “I feel it heavily when a senior walks in. Every student is different; it varies with each individual. It’s nice. It puts me in [the student’s] generation a little bit.”

The test includes grammar, sentence editing, 35 objective questions, with subjects entailing reading skills, sequencing, development of paragraphs, main ideas, a 150 page summary (paraphrased and without opinion), and a five paragraph persuasive essay in four hours.

A tutoring session generally lasts 10 hours, and is typically broken apart over the course of three to five weeks. Working as a tutor for the MTEL has been fulfilling for Kidess. She has used different methods for different learning styles, though none that she has executed stands out to her more than her “chalk talks.”

“I firmly believe that I would not have passed the writing portion of the MTEL if it wasn’t for Helen,” said Savannah Ditomassi, who worked on the MTEL with Kidess as a sophomore. “She constantly had new material for me to work with.”

Like her father before her, Kidess holds tutoring sessions at her apartment in Reed’s Landing. Students and visitors can expect upon entering to hear sonnets of Bach playing softly throughout the room. With note sheets propped up on a stand, there is also a piano against the wall in the center of the apartment. Kidess still plays occasionally, echoing the identical routine of her practicing two hours every day before school. To the right of the piano stool are two large boxes, the top consisting of notes of wisdom from her father, the bottom consisting of letters from Ted during World War II. The tutoring area is a desk that is lined up in front of the main window of the residence, that overlooks East Campus and Camp Massasoit. Manila and red folders are piled on the desk, which retracts into a leaf for studying.

“Helen is a wise lady,” said student Kerri O’Rourke. “She knows just by the way I walk in that I am exhausted and she won’t put too much on me. Then another day she knows I have a lot of energy and we can talk for hours about past stories about how her and my grandmother went to the same school, or how she balanced everything in college. She truly is an inspiration.”

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