Boothbay Region Elementary School special education teacher Toby LeConte is retiring after 45 years. Colleagues, friends, parents, students and community members congratulated the legendary educator in a surprise parade June 10.
To say LeConte isn’t the type to seek attention is an understatement. She is known to be among the humblest of educators and avoids the spotlight so her students and athletes can take center stage. So it came as no surprise that when Boothbay Register began reaching out to parents and colleagues, people were already getting in touch with kind words and stories to share about LeConte as an educator and as a person.
Retired BRES teacher Cathie Parkhurst taught just down the hall from LeConte for over 37 years. They have been friends for 47 years going back to their college days at the University of Maine at Farmington. “Our school system will never see the likes of Toby LeConte again. Even the program must be run differently from now on, and three to four teachers will be required to take her place.”
That is not an exaggeration, Parkhurst said. When LeConte graduated from UMF in 1975, she was in one of the first classes trained as special educators entering classrooms under Public Law 94-142, to provide a public education to students with special needs. With little federal or state guidance on special education then, LeConte continued the school district’s practice of teaching the region’s special ed students in a space the Catholic Church provided until BRES opened in 1977.
“Since (then), she has taught at BRES in the same program which she designed and has adapted over the years,” said Parkhurst. “She may be the only original teacher still at that school!”
LeConte has also been involved with Special Olympics since its inception in 1968, first as a volunteer through high school and college and then as a coach to present day; she went on to coach local Special Olympics teams and state, national and even a few world ones. LeConte has been the driving force behind all her athletes. Many have gone on to national and world competitions. And she has been the driving force behind the many student volunteers over the years.
Former Special Services Director Trish Harrison worked with LeConte for 28 years and considers herself lucky to have retired while LeConte was still at the helm for special ed on the peninsula. Harrison described LeConte as the most selfless person she has ever met.
“She continually balances and meets the needs of her own family, her students and their families and her friends … Since the first day I met Toby, her priorities have never wavered. Her school days and years have no boundaries – doing whatever it takes to get the job done. ‛Going way above and beyond’ is a total understatement!”
Outgoing Special Services Director Lisa Smith said LeConte’s guidance has also helped her personally. About 19 years ago, Smith and her husband were looking at options to grow their family and decided to become licensed foster parents. Through training, the couple learned of the many challenges facing families and children and it made them second-guess if they were emotionally ready. LeConte, who went through a similar experience with her children, told Smith she believed they were ready. “I remember her saying, ‛I do, I really do and I don’t say that to everyone.’ I trusted this advice.”
Over a few years, Smith said her hopes were dashed many times before her youngest son joined the family permanently in 2006 and her eldest, just six months later. Both experienced delays and challenges and participated in many special ed services, said Smith.
“With Miss LeConte, my (youngest) son was able to experience a welcoming classroom, in which he had something to glean from others as well as offer others. She worked hard to teach him to be a ‘good human’ … I could write a book about the times she came to the rescue both in and out of school. All I know is that I felt a sense of relief that he wouldn’t be able to wear her down. It certainly wasn’t an effortless experience on any of our parts.”
Parent Betsy Angelico’s 12-year-old son, Anthony, has been in LeConte’s class since he was 6. Angelico thought he would need a regular kindergarten classroom with one-on-one help, not alongside special needs students of all ages.
“I looked at the class and just thought, 'This is not going to work for my child,'” said Angelico. “Then I figured out Toby really knows what she is doing and to not really question that because if there's anyone who knows what these kids need, it's someone who's been doing this for 40 years. As it turns out, her program is exactly what Anthony needed.”
LeConte has also worked with Anthony and most students during off-hours, on weekends, in the middle of the night and in the summertime, said Angelico. If LeConte’s phone rings and the call involves one of her students or former students, she picks up, Angelico said. “She will take a call and will give great advice and I couldn't imagine not having her to be able to do that.”
Every year, Anthony goes to two sleep-away summer camps for children with special needs and though he enjoys them while he is there, the anticipation of going makes him anxious. So, every year, LeConte offers to take him on the two-hour, Sunday trip. “Last year, she took him and three or four other kids from the class just to go for the ride … She'll do things like that so easily and so effortlessly that you feel like you can ask her for this extra help and she wouldn't want you to not ask.”
Parents, friends and colleagues agreed LeConte will somehow stay involved with her former students. Said Parkhurst, “Only a few of us are still around who were here when Toby began. I can tell you honestly that she has served throughout her career in the same way she does today. I’m happy for her that she will have a life outside of school, but I know her well enough to know that she will, for the rest of her life, be interested in and involved with the lives of the students she has taught.”