“I feel happy and excited and sad at the same time. Forty-two years is a long time." — Sandra Merrill-Casey, business teacher, co op-coordinator, T.C. Williams High School
"I had to put on my sunglasses when I went outside to say goodbye to the kids to hide my tears." — Karita Evans, second grade teacher, Maury Elementary School
Sandra Merrill-Casey has a bouquet of long-stemmed white roses sitting on her desk amid business textbooks. This is her last day of school. She still remembers her first day of teaching. "It would be 42 years in August. I was petrified, so nervous my voice started shaking." She started teaching computer keyboarding at John Adams but has spent 38 of her 42 years "right here at T.C. Williams" where she has taught accounting, business law, principles of business management and economics and personal finance.
School buses had come at 2:35 p.m. and Karita Evans sits in her classroom with desks all pushed up against the wall. Evans, second grade teacher at Maury Elementary School, says she can remember her first day teaching kindergarten at Lyles Crouch 41-years ago because she was hired the Friday before Labor Day. "I didn't know what to expect." But she had a paraprofessional who was familiar with kindergarten so Evans let her take the lead at the beginning. "We had full day kindergarten so I had 26 in the morning and 26 in the afternoon." She says 40 years ago everyone was pretty much doing their own thing teaching. Now they follow the standards of learning for the state of Virginia. She thinks kids are learning faster and progressing faster.
Both Merrill-Casey and Evans have seen a change in parental involvement in over 40 years of teaching. Merrill-Casey says parental involvement is not what it used to be. Many parents aren't at home or the children are from single-parent homes. "The supervision is not there. The responsibility is left on the students and, if they are not internally motivated, they fall by the wayside."
Evans agrees that she had a little more parental support when she first began teaching but as the years passed she saw parents working more and children had extracurricular activities, music lessons, a lot of sports. "We went through a period where we had to do home visits to get parents to come to the schools. Once parents felt comfortable that a teacher had come into their homes, had tea and a piece of cake, they felt like we were equal and they started coming to the school. "We tried all kinds of things to get them to the building — raffles, cookouts, book drives."
BOTH TEACHERS thought they started to see this change in the mid-90s. Casey-Evans says, "I think it reflects society as a whole." But both say the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. "Our Back to School Night was packed this year," Merrill-Casey comments, and Evans says she has had the best parents for the last seven years at Maury.
Merrill-Casey has also seen a change in the students. "Oh yes, they want instant gratification without putting in the work to get that A. They don't spend as much time studying. And now there is a lot of fighting in high school."
Evans says she notices that her second graders are busier with more activities and they are definitely tech savvy now. She thinks parents used to read books to their children and spend more family time together. "Now they have a Kindle."
Merrill-Casey says when she first started teaching her business classes they were using electric typewriters. But she says while the technology is different, the substance of most of her classes hasn't changed much. "I just try to relate the examples more to their real life. For instance, in business law I use the example of buying a car because that is a contract."
Merrill-Casey says some policies have changed over time. "There used to be a strict attendance policy. That has gone away. We still have a major attendance problem." She says computer attendance has replaced a hand tally, and can be good when it's functioning. "There are a lot of glitches with the computers and every time they change the system we have to learn something new." She adds that the move from five classes every day to 90-minute blocks every other day takes more planning time for teachers and they have to cover more material.
Evans has seen a shift from letter grades to 4, 3, 2, 1. "I don't think letter grades are good for children in second grade when they are developing. It doesn't give a good picture." Evans sets up her second grade room with tables to instill a community feeling. She creates teams because "I feel like when you are older you are working with people. Everyone has a responsibility. That's what life is all about." Evans says children come into second grade with a lot of fears, a lot of challenges. "But by the end of the year I can't describe the feeling of success."
Both Merrill-Casey and Evans have similar advice for a new teacher today. Merrill-Casey says, "I would tell a new teacher to stay focused and be patient. Be able to roll with the punches. Know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em ...." She adds, get to know your students and focus on the student as a whole person; help develop their character.
Evans says a teacher needs to come in with the attitude that all children can learn, but you can't do it all in one year. "Some teachers get frustrated and you don't see people teaching for 40 years anymore." She adds, "Teachers need administrative support; they can't do it all at once." She says she has taught under 16 principals in her 40 years. Finally, "Come in with a positive attitude and draw on mentors and teachers with experience."
Evans says, "I'm a teacher at heart — third generation. My grandmother taught in a one- room school in North Carolina. My mother was my second grade teacher and my father was my high school principal. My son is head of a charter school in Baltimore.”
WHAT NEXT? Both said they were going to rest. Evans commented, "I'm turning off the alarm clock." She had been used to getting up at 5:30 a.m.
Merrill-Casey says, "I love movies — adventure, romantic — and I'm going to stay active in education.
Evans says she plans to come back and volunteer at Maury but not substitute teaching. "I don't want lesson plans." She would rather come back and help children who need extra help.
Evans says she plans to spend more time being a grandmother and she and her husband purchased 20 acres outside of Suffolk, Va. "In our next life we'll be farmers."
The last day has been bittersweet with lots of hugs. Evans says, "I had to put on my sunglasses when I went outside to say goodbye to the kids to hide my tears."
Merrill-Casey says she feels happy and excited and sad at the same time. "Forty-two years is a long time."
This article on teacher retirement is the first of a two-part series.