Keeping Education All in the Family

For three generations, the Denaults have attended Elms to pursue a passion for teaching.

Growing up in Chicopee, Mass., Shannon Denault ’19 spent many family get-togethers in the basement of her grandmother’s house, along with 14 cousins. Walking into the cellar, most people would expect to find a TV, a video game console, or maybe a well-worn Ping-Pong table. What Shannon had, instead, was a bona fide classroom setup, complete with neat rows of school desks and a blackboard.

“I was always the teacher, and they were the students,” Shannon said. “It made me feel so special when my cousins would ask me to be their teacher, even at a young age.”

Photo of the Denault family; Tara Denault, M.Ed. ’96 (left), Shannon Denault ’19, and Joyce Denault ’60.
Tara Denault, M.Ed. ’96 (left), Shannon Denault ’19, and Joyce Denault ’60. All three women studied elementary education during college to make a positive impact on young learners.

While playing school might sound like good-natured make-believe, becoming a teacher is more like a rite of passage for the Denaults. Along with her mother, Tara Denault, M.Ed. ’96, and her grandmother, Joyce Denault ’60, Shannon represents the third generation of women in her family to attend Elms and pursue a career in education.

As a “Day Hop” commuter in the late 1950s, Joyce majored in elementary education. She went on to teach at Peppermint Nursery School in Chicopee for 13 years. Her attention to educating the whole person — or in this case, toddler — echoes the college’s tradition of developing mind, body, and spirit together.

At Brunton Elementary School in Chicopee, Tara has carried on her mother-in-law’s commitment to holistic education for 31 years and counting. Keenly aware of the complex intellectual and emotional needs of her 5th grade students, Tara has transformed her classroom into a space of empowerment and security. Teaching science is her opportunity to introduce young adults to experiences they never knew existed.

“Especially in the inner city, making a connection with students and infusing the classroom with a family feel is important,” she said.

After graduating this spring, Shannon will inherit the family torch and embark on her first teaching job. An elementary education major and coaching minor, she is eager to bring out the best in her students both academically and athletically. Shannon has plenty of experience doing both: In addition to substitute teaching for her mother’s class at Brunton, she also coaches the junior varsity softball team at Longmeadow High School. When she has time, she volunteers as a coach for the girls basketball team at Chicopee High School.

If the Denault family legacy is defined by educational excellence, it also owes much to the socio-spiritual side of campus life as well. In Joyce’s case, Elms represents the origin of abiding friendships.

“The best thing of all was the friendships that I made,” she recalled. “When I graduated, three or four of us girls decided that we would meet every two weeks. To this day, we still do.”

“This is a very warm-hearted school still,” she added. “Shannon has friends who stand by her and help her through bad times and good times — that’s how it was years ago, too.”

For Tara, Elms is a place where spirituality unfolds and intersects with intellectual inquiry.

“Elms is a reminder of our faith,” she said. “We are all blessed to share this together.”

Shannon couldn’t agree more. For her, Elms is synonymous with home, a place where she connects with her family’s roots.