Parents help out in Wilton classrooms all the time. But for Carol Kochefko, coming into the classroom of her daughter Christine Higgins, a German teacher at Wilton High School, was an entirely different story. Earlier this school year, Kochefko, a retired German teacher, replaced her daughter for six weeks when Higgins went out on maternity leave.

“When she asked, I said, ‘I don’t know if I still have it, I’ve been out of the business for two years,” she laughs. “But I told the kids my style was a little different than my daughter’s. I got so many beautiful  letters from the students–even one that said, ‘I really loved your teaching, even if it wasn’t as modern as Mrs. Higgins.’”

With Kochefko as the long-term substitute for six weeks, Higgins knew the students would actually continue learning, almost as if she was doing the teaching herself. Her mom had started teaching in 1978, right out of college; eventually, she was recruited to teach at Westport’s Staples High School in 1986, teaching there until her retirement in 2015.

“I didn’t want my students to be nervous, they always think you’ll be out longer than you are. But I didn’t want them to be worried. And it’s such a seamless transition to have somebody you know in the classroom–AKA your mom! She would come everyday to give me the work to grade. And we would discuss the lesson plans. Mom had my worksheets, and everything I’d normally be doing in the classroom, so she was my physical presence. And we have pretty much the same technique and style, so when I came back I knew exactly what they were learning, there was no gap, and we just picked up from there, right back in the swing of things,” she explains.

Kochefko was happy to do it, although she knew where to draw the line.

“I said I would be you in the classroom, but I also need a little bit of a life too. I have a 96 year old mother to take care of. So I taught, she graded.”

Kochefko learned to speak German as a child growing up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens. “There were a lot of different languages spoken–German, Italian, Yiddish. I grew up hearing different languages all the time. You’d go into friends’ houses, and hear the different languages and I guess I had an ear for it,” she says.

Kochefko’s work as a German teacher inspired Higgins to follow in her footsteps, although she initially thought she’d wind up doing something else–but always something involving the German language. She started speaking it as a child, eventually growing up to study it abroad and at Boston College’s well-known German program.

“There are so many opportunities out there to use German. But, I started out as a communications major, and thought I’d work for a German company–there are 200 German companies in CT alone. But then I started student teaching and found I really enjoyed teaching children. I’ve taught 6th grade through 12th grade, and I really fell in love with it,” she says.

Like her mom too, Higgins started teaching right after graduating from college 11 years ago, reporting to her own first job as a long-term substitute in her graduation gown. She’s been at WHS for the last two.

“The program is very important to me, and I wanted it to be fun and dynamic for the kids. I knew I wasn’t going to be out very long. But I waited for 10 years to have a baby. I asked my mom if she would consider it, and I also called the previous German teacher too…I gave her first dibs, but ultimately one of the two would have to take it,” Higgins recalls.

Kochefko still had to go through the interview process, sitting down not only with human resource director Maria Coleman but also principal Robert O’Donnell. Higgins knew her mom would ace that part.

“Dr. O’Donnell speaks German fluently, so I knew she’d pass the interview!” she laughs.

With a plan in place, Higgins was able to work right up to her last day on Oct. 20, actually going into labor that day–and was in labor for three days total. Her son, Charles, was born on his due date, Oct. 22. “German punctuality at its best!” Higgins laughs again.

The students took to the plan as well.

“It was a lot of fun and the kids were terrific, and accepting. I just saw two of them outside and they hugged me…so they had the grandma in the classroom,” says Kochefko.

Mother and daughter agree that for the students getting to see the human side of their teachers’ lives fits well with the program.

“The students are like a family. They’re together learning the language, they often have the same kids in the classroom all four years, so they become very close. Christie does have a lovely relationship with her students–they all went to her wedding that year,” says Kochefko. Her daughter adds, “That’s very important this year because the faculty are very focused on student connectedness, so we’re very connected in the German class.”

Higgins is proud of the world language program at WHS, and is happy to be back in the classroom after her maternity leave.

“Language opens doors, it also opens students’ minds. In the times we live in, that’s really important. A lot of my class is also culture, getting them to understand history, the customs and traditions. We do a lot of field trips–you don’t just do the language, when you think of German there are a lot of other things that go along with it–going to the opera, art galleries. Having a strong program like this, those schools want to snatch up these kids, because they’ve had it, they’ve been exposed to it. Not everybody has such a strong program so it gives them an advantage.”

Whether the connections are real mother and daughter connections or simply between teacher and student, these teachers are leading by example.

“You get invested in what the kids are doing after graduating, it’s exciting to hear,” says Higgins. “I have a lot of former students who have been engineering majors, even Fulbright scholars It’s nice to see what they’re doing, and they like to let you know that they’re continuing with the language and doing good things with it.”