Joan Collins is seated, and four first graders — two boys and two girls — gather round, eager and alert.
In another corner, a teacher’s aide works with four other students, and across the room teacher Amy D’Andrea has five students gathered in a semicircle.
Even with the other small groups, a photographer clicking away nearby to capture the moment, and this reporter scribbling notes into a pad, the first graders listen with rapt attention.
It’s 9 am at Tisbury School, and Collins is starting her first of four days that week volunteering at the elementary school. Her day will include working with the first graders on reading, moving on to other classes to offer instruction, and finishing up with some laminating and copying in the school’s library.
Those tasks in the library aren’t glamorous, but as a retired teacher who spent 36½ years in the classroom, Collins understands and appreciates the needs of busy classroom teachers.
Still, it’s those moments in the classroom working with the small group of students reading four- or five-word sentences that keep her coming back Mondays through Thursdays.
“I should pay them,” Collins told me the first time we chatted about her volunteer work at the school.
Collins was a paid teacher in a career that spanned four decades in the inner city in Hartford, Conn. Her husband, Frank, is a retired teacher, too.
Volunteering in a classroom after retiring is something she always envisioned. It’s all of the fun of teaching without the pressures of test scores, grading, parent conferences, and the other things that go along with managing a classroom. So when she and her husband moved into their Edgartown home permanently, Collins landed at Tisbury School shortly after, and she’s been volunteering now for six years, every November through April.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “People pay money to do things that I’d never do. I enjoy this.”
The teachers love her. D’Andrea said it’s a gift to have someone with the background Collins has in the classroom.
“She’s amazing,” D’Andrea said, a smile widening across her face. “She has tremendous patience with the children. I can just give her a lesson plan and she can go with it. She gets to know the kids, and has great insight.”
All of which gives her more time to spend in small groups with other children. “She brings so much to every room she works in,” D’Andrea said.
The kids love her, too. “I had her in kindergarten,” Brycen Millen said, grinning so big you would have thought it was his birthday instead of Wesley Kelly’s, who turned 7 that day. “She’s really nice.”
Collins said it’s great getting to know the kids, and working with some of the same students from year to year.
Even her scolding comes with a gentle touch. When one of the students colored in a box around a word instead of following her directions, she asked him, “Is that helpful?” He quickly erased the box on the laminated sheet and drew a box around the word “also,” as originally instructed.
Collins is certainly capable of working one-on-one with students, but said it’s those group dynamics she thrives on. “Kids do better in small groups,” she said. “They’re more motivated, pay better attention, and learn from one another.”
Collins still finds plenty of time for herself. When she left school on the day after we visited, she was headed out to play pickleball. When it’s warm enough, she also enjoys outdoor tennis, and she’s president of the Edgartown Croquet Club — her favorite game to play.
You won’t find Collins and her husband leaving the Island in winter for warmer climates. “My husband doesn’t like the hot weather,” she said. Off-Island vacations typically take them to Portsmouth, N.H., and Portland, Maine.
But when she’s not doing the other things she enjoys, Collins still likes getting down to the level of young students, sounding out words, and seeing them thrive.
“I’m good at a lot of things. I’m only great at one thing. I have a really good skill set as a teacher. It’s a lot of fun for me to use it,” Collins said, reiterating why she spends four days getting up early and into the classroom. “It works out nicely.”