Wednesday, September 4, 2019

52 Ancestors - SCHOOL DAYS: Teacher in Me

“Back to School” shopping is not something I have done in many years. However, the past couple months I have just smiled at the Walmart bins of notebooks, pens, glue sticks, and folders as parents consider the colors and numbers of supplies that will help their children be successful in the coming school year. On Facebook, parents have checked daily for bus schedules and teacher assignments.

On the flip side, teachers too have been busy with their own preparations in anticipation of receiving their class lists of bright stars and ruffians who will grace their classrooms. I know. I was a teacher - third generation, I might add.

1st Gen:  HERE and HERE 
2nd Gen: HERE

All that DNA did little to prepare me to actually BE a teacher. My high school teachers were an inspiration. I wanted to be just like Cora Mae Fitzgerald and Sharon Comer, two of my English teachers. To come even close, I thought I needed to take EVERY. SINGLE. ENGLISH. COURSE. there was in order to be fully prepared to discuss poetry and short stories with students who surely would be just as enthusiastic as I was.

Sue Yancey March 1973
Mrs. Sue Yancey
I was lulled into thinking teaching would be a steady stream of magical moments by a near-perfect student teaching experience. My mentor was the well-seasoned and most-beloved teacher at Elkton High School in Rockingham County: Sue Yancey. We worked together well, and she handed the reins over to me early on. To demonstrate my creativity and flexibility, I quickly set about utilizing all the educational equipment of the day:  filmstrip projector, movie projector, overhead projector, and of course, mimeographed handouts. “Purple prose,” we used to call it. The students liked me. I liked them. I was GREAT!

Despite my good grades, I was unable to get a job as a teacher. The city and county schools were gearing up for evaluation, so all new hires were to have Masters degrees. I had enrolled in graduate school anyway, so I was hopeful for the next year. However, then school-wide evaluations were done, and teachers with Masters degrees were not wanted because they would have to be paid more.

Fortunately – or not – a position was available at Elkton where I had enjoyed a rewarding stint as a student teacher. It was only part time – 2 English classes in grades 7 and 8 plus STUDY HALL. (Does that exist anymore?). At the time I was glad to take it, but I did not feel that way for long. In fact, I cried every afternoon when I got home from school.
When I was there in 1973, it was a high school and JUNIOR high.
Since then several high schools were consolidated
and the MIDDLE school concept has been instituted.
There were several conditions that conspired to make my first real job as a teacher the worst year of my professional life. Because none of the English teachers had volunteered to be department chairman, there was no one in charge (how was that allowed to happen?). I had no one to go to for help, and I was too shy and too embarrassed to seek it out. Did any of the other teachers notice the new girl and offer to help? NO! Not a one came to meet me, welcome me, or offer to share ideas.

Then there was the matter of textbooks. All books were laid out in a single classroom and teachers could go and take what they wanted. What kind of system is that? I was lucky to be able to determine which books went with which grade.

Another problem I encountered was that in the mid-70s, traditional grammar had been replaced by “transformational grammar.” What’s that? Traditional grammar that most of us were taught in school is PRESCRIPTIVE – that is, it emphasizes rules and correctness. Transformational grammar is DESCRIPTIVE – that is, it shows us what we actually do when we speak or write and makes no judgment about whether it is right or wrong. I am sure someone earned a fine PhD with that piece of junk adopted by so many schools desperate to be at the forefront of innovation. However, as low teacher on the faculty totem pole, I was assigned the lower level students, and the only grammar books left were the transformational ones. A lot of good that would do them, or anyone else, for that matter.
Elkton Junior High 1975
Elkton Junior High 1975
Do they look excited?

I admit it – I was the worst teacher on record. I bounced from thing to thing, developing little pointless units of study trying to find something that worked. Trying to just make it through the year. The only semi-positive memory was the letter writing unit. Each student wrote a little letter which we attached to helium balloons and released. Then we waited to see if anyone would find the balloon letter and write back. ONE. One student got a reply. Today I have no idea how I got the balloons to school!

That one event was the ONLY high point of a terrible year. I often regret that it was likely a terrible year for the students too. No, not likely – DEFINITELY. I did them no favors.

 I. C. Norcom High School
This building is gone, replaced by a shopping center.
But the next year, I was hired by Portsmouth City Schools. What a difference school and system leadership can make. My six years at Norcom High School restored my confidence. During that time, I enjoyed the variety and creativity of teaching English to freshmen, juniors, and seniors. I also taught creative writing, and I served as advisor for the newspaper.

My last newspaper staff was something else. What a dynamo bunch. I had investigative reporters. Editorial writers. Creative writers who liked to throw in a little something funny now and then. Most of them are friends to this day, albeit mostly on Facebook, but how amazing to have known them when they were 17 AND when they turned 50!
Norcom Gazette Staff 1981
Gazette Staff 1981
Best EVER! Love you all!
I still have a yearbook and autograph book signed by my last groups of students from Norcom High School. They wrote such thoughtful messages. In truth, I am pretty sure I was not nearly as good as they thought I was, but I had come a LOOOONG way from that weak and floundering teacher I had been.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. This is a fun post. I'm so glad you were able to put that first year of teaching behind you. Have you stayed in touch with any of those students?

  2. I’m sure many of us who were teachers look back on that first year feeling we failed those students. I certainly do. Luckily they moved on and hopefully experienced one or some of the excellent teachers met through other years.

  3. So truly enjoyed reading this! It is your experience as a student teacher and then your experience in the next classroom that is the exact reason we don't have another corgi. After our "perfect" one died we were sure the next one would be "the one from hell."

    At least you didn't give up on the career after your less than stellar first year and it seemed that you were deeply loved and respected by your students at the end of your career.

    That was interesting about transformational grammar. I hadn't heard that term before. You explained it great. I graduated in 1975 so I don't think it affected me too much if any and besides I graduated from high school in California and they always seemed to be behind with what the Eastern folks were doing in teaching. For exampled, I learned cursive in 1st grade at a Catholic school in Pennsylvania. When moving to a new one in San Diego for the 3rd grade, they were just learning it.


  4. This was a fun post to ready - all about your teaching experiences! Thanks for sharing the ups and downs. Have a great weekend.