Kim Larrabee, HDFS Lecturer & Student Coordinator of Early Childhood Programs
I joined the HDFS faculty in 2007 and I’m writing this ‘spotlight’ as I prepare to end a 33-year career in education; I will be retiring at the end of this semester. My journey to UConn and to my current position within the department has been both circuitous and rewarding. I am ending my career quite a distance from where it started in some ways, and in some ways, right back to where it all began.
My undergraduate work was in Environmental Sciences with a minor in High-Risk Outdoor Education. Following graduation, I worked for Unity College in their Community Programs, in conjunction with Outward Bound and Maine Youth Services and Elderhostel. I worked with adolescents right up through retirees running 7-, 14- and 21-days trips in wilderness settings in Maine; rock-climbing, ice-climbing, backpacking, winter backpacking, canoeing, and white-water rafting- it was quite an experience. When I got tired of sleeping in a tent, I completed my graduate work and a dual MA degree/NYS teaching certificate in K-12 Special Education/Elementary Ed. In 1988 I began a 15-year teaching career in Eastern Long Island. I was hired in the East Hampton Public Schools as a K-1 self-contained special educator and then the K-4 Resource Room teacher. In 1990, due to new policies, states had to guarantee that schools would serve all children with handicaps from age three (prior, the districts responsibility was aged 5-21). I was appointed the PreK Teacher Rep for the district’s Committee on Special Education and I served in that role until I left. I also served as the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) Rep for 8 years, having developed a strong commitment to the principles of organized labor and collective bargaining. During my tenure in the East Hampton Public Schools, I owned a home in Sag Harbor and was involved in local environmental and educational equity issues. I loved my time teaching and the highlights were taking children outside of the classroom- birding, hiking, and discovering the wonders of living on an island…especially the beaches and all that comes with enjoying and educating young children about that fragile ecosystem. When I discovered that I could teach children with significant learning disabilities to read using Field Guides coupled with hands on learning, a whole new world opened up for all of us. It was a highlight of my career. An interesting full-circle moment was 15 years later when a student from East Hampton joined the UConn ECS program! I knew her mom well as the Community DARE officer who visited my classroom every year.
Another highlight of my career in East Hampton, and one that was ultimately my segue to UConn, was my involvement with the Responsive Classroom Approach (RC). RC helped me clarify a critical aspect of teaching children with special needs (& ultimately ALL children); if a teacher’s knowledge is not firmly rooted in child development, truly differentiated instruction is impossible. A few dedicated colleagues and I spear-headed the move to RC and the elementary school became an RC School. We were a model school that teachers and administrators from around the country visited regularly. The heart of the RC approach is the belief that in order to teach children, we must know them individually, culturally, and developmentally. This approach required strong teacher reflection and the cycle of intentionality which were a highly cultivated and foundational aspect of RC.
It was my experience in training/mentoring teachers and administrators in RC that made me an attractive candidate for the Early Childhood Teacher Prep program at UConn, a program that held teacher intentionality and reflection as cornerstones of their program and aligned with the basic premises of RC: knowing the children in your classroom developmentally, individually, and culturally.
When I arrived at UConn in 2007, I was hired to work in the Child Development Lab as the Coordinator of Children with Special Needs, and to teach one course: HDFS 3183, the early childhood practicum course. Over these 14 years, my position changed dramatically! The two big changes that defined my time at UConn came in 2010 when I became the Coordinator of the Early Childhood Specialization (ECS) and in 2009 when my teaching responsibilities made a significant jump. Ron Sabatelli approached me to develop a course on disabilities throughout the lifespan. This was an important addition to the existing curriculum in the department as there were no courses directly addressing disability studies. Anne Farrell approached me, and offered to join me in developing the course, and a partnership was formed, offering the course on both the Storrs and Stamford campuses. It was exciting for me because the course attracted students from many disciplines and a variety of majors. The course was converted to HDFS 3250 and I taught the course for 7 years until my responsibilities shifted, again.
When Jane Goldman’s retirement was imminent, Ron and JoAnn Robinson approached me to redesign HDFS 3120, Programs for Young Children. We decided to offer it fully online to make it available on both the Stamford and Storrs campuses. This cross-campus, online approach helped address the growing ECS program on the Stamford campus. I completely redesigned the course, offered for the first time in 2016 and every semester since.
My commitment to the principles of collective bargaining and organized labor carried over from my time with NYSUT, and I served from 2013-2020 as the AAUP Representative. Along with Linda Halgunseth we represented the department during the last grueling and contentious contract negotiation. The AAUP Executive Director seemed to never tire of hearing me beat the drum for the Article 13 employees- those of us in the department who are full-time contractual faculty who work without the security of tenure. Article 13 was the final hurdle to the contract negotiations and Dan Malloy literally waived it through at 11:30 PM the last day of the negotiations.
My responsibilities as the Coordinator of the ECS have been the most demanding and simultaneously, the most rewarding aspect of my time at UConn. I have essentially recruited every student who has come into the program for the past 11 years, and that mostly falls into the demanding pile. What falls into the rewarding pile is having built extraordinary relationships with students and watched our program evolve into one of the most highly recognized Early Childhood programs in New England. When I think of what I will miss most, it will be the excitement (and sometimes relief) when a student recognizes that they have really found themselves, and their place at UConn through being in the ECS. Many of our students report that the ECS was the very best part of their time at UConn- that it had the most significant impact on their lives. It certainly makes for a rewarding note on which to end my career.
What’s next in retirement…. I have many interests outside of UConn and in my ‘spare’ time I am a practicing Theravadin Buddhist. I have been a dedicated practitioner for about 25 years, have a daily meditation practice and pre-Covid attended at least one study/practice retreat a year in addition to one monastic retreat. For several years I attended a 17-day silent, teacher-led retreat that put the spring back in my meditation step and kept my commitment solid. My other big interests are birding (I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count in February with Cornell Lab of Ornithology), hiking, and open ocean/distance swimming. We moved from No. Stonington CT to Charlestown RI in 2019, so after leaving the east end of Long Island, I have finally gotten back to the ocean. Those who know me well know that I am hydro-powered! My intention is to do a ‘retirement gap year’- no big commitments for one year! Although, when that year is up, I do intend to become more involved with my local Land Trust in Charlestown and the Rhode Island Environmental Educators Association which I’ve recently become connected to. My husband retired last February after 37 years as a Fisheries Biologist with the MA Department of Environmental Protection. We spend a few weeks in Maine every summer on an island, and our plan is to extend that time, and to begin doing one big bucket-list trip a year! Retiring with some gas left in our tanks was a goal for both of us- I am calling this Phase 4: the ‘teenage years of old age’!!