Teacher Magazine (print edition)
RAYMOND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Maybe Hazel Wilson wasn’t destined to become a teacher, but she felt the signs pointing her in that direction were pretty clear. She was named after a schoolteacher, and when she was a student in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she had two inspiring teachers named Hazel. At age 16, Wilson left home to attend Winston-Salem Teachers College in North Carolina (now Winston-Salem State University). She was the youngest student in her class.
After nearly half a century working in Washington, D.C., elementary schools, Wilson, 73, has seen a lot of changes. She likes to find creative ways to inspire her 5th graders and doesn’t think much of the current standardized-test mania. “Standards are good for setting up what to do, but it’s too procedural,” she says. Wilson prefers to teach by what she calls her Teacher Guide—a document she developed back in her student-teaching days. Its first imperative is optimism, followed by faith, planning, and determination. “I’m a very firm teacher,” Wilson says. “But you can make learning interesting for the kids. Every day is a new day in a classroom.”
Former students often come back to visit, including a young man who stopped by to thank Wilson for keeping him inside during recess to make sure he learned to read. He drove up in a Cadillac, which he admitted he’d bought with drug money. “I’ve been to so many funerals of young men, boys,” Wilson says sadly.
But she’s very proud of the adults most of her former students grew up to be and will happily retire in June, knowing her career has been a job well done. “I haven’t regretted one moment of teaching,” she says. She plans to substitute teach next year, but only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. “I want those long weekends,” she laughs.
Agnes Zeiger taught for an impressive 42 years before she retired. That was in 1988. Since then, she’s been a mostly full-time substitute at public and parochial schools in Tiffin, Ohio: a “retirement career” that’s been longer than many teachers’ regular careers.
When Zeiger, 80, was a young woman, she was a religious sister—a nun who works in the community. She graduated from Mary Manse College in Toledo, Ohio, and taught 1st grade in Catholic schools. But her aging father needed her help, so Zeiger went home to Tiffin to care for him and teach. Around that time, her brother introduced her to one of his friends. “I thought I would just be a teacher,” she says. “But I met someone, and I got married.”
Zeiger has taught every elementary school grade, though 1st grade is her favorite. She’s also taught children with speech and hearing difficulties—a specialty she grew to love, even though she didn’t originally choose it. “The mother superior told me to go to school and learn to teach speech,” she remembers. “So I did.” In the 1960s, Zeiger spent a summer at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., learning to teach sign language—a somewhat controversial practice at the time. “Parents in Toledo didn’t want their kids to learn [sign language],” she says. “They thought it would draw attention to the children. Things were really different back then.”
That’s no exaggeration. In contrast to today’s blizzard of state and federal standards and regulations, Zeiger says governments played a very minor role in education when she first started teaching. And she questions whether schools today have moved too far away from the basics that students once had to learn. “There’s so much extra stuff now, trips here and there. But do they know all the things they need to know?” she asks. “Of course, I’m an old-fashioned teacher.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when 22-year-old Rose Gilbert first took her place at the front of a Los Angeles classroom. She left after just a year to work a lucrative job as a contract agent for MGM Studios. But Gilbert felt the pull of the classroom again in 1956, and she’s been teaching in the city full time ever since.
English has always been the 88-year-old’s subject. She mentions all in one breath her favorite books to teach: Camus’ The Stranger, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. “My kids read a lot—sometimes a book every week or two,” she says. It’s all part of her plan to instill a love of literature rivaling students’ passion for electronic gadgets, the ubiquity of which, she jokes, reminds her of Brave New World.
Teaching has helped Gilbert through tragedy twice—following the deaths of her husband and daughter—and she has no plans to stop now.
“I always ask each kid a question,” Gilbert says. “‘If there were a press conference for you 20 years from now, what do you want it to be about?’ I want them to have some goals in life.”
In the world in which Ellie Johnson grew up, most women chose among three careers: teaching, nursing, or store clerking. Her mother was a teacher, so Johnson decided to try it too. “I’m lucky teaching turned out to be so good for me,” she says.
Johnson started teaching history in Syracuse, New York, in 1954. After two years, she moved to the city’s newly built Jamesville-DeWitt High School. Fifty years later, the 74-year-old is still there, and still teaching history.
She’s been through many curriculum changes, like the trend that folded her subject into “social studies” and then separated it again. Johnson much prefers “straight history.” “All the concepts in social studies confused kids—it makes it tough to keep the chronology straight,” she says.
The septuagenarian keeps students interested by teaching history as a narrative—something she can do with the authority of someone who’s lived through a textbook full of seminal events.
“You really lose out if you don’t know what it was like in the past, to appreciate what you have and know why you have it,” she explains.
As for her own history, that’s still being written—she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.
Roy Clare doesn’t like to talk about how old he is—or isn’t. “I never discuss age because it’s not important,” he says. “There are some people who have always been old.”
Suffice it to say that Clare, 81, is not one of those people. Although he’s been teaching music for almost five decades in the Williamsville, New York, Central School District, his longevity isn’t often on his mind. At the moment, he’s more concerned with designing a music curriculum that will be meaningful to students of wildly varying abilities. One of his recent successes was a unit about rap, in which students created rhythmic patterns using the names of desserts.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, Clare began what would become a career-long commitment to teaching middle-schoolers, punctuated by a sabbatical in the early 1970s to finish a doctorate in education. He has also moonlighted throughout his career as a church organist and choirmaster.
Clare’s enthusiasm and commitment to continual improvement haven’t wavered. “I want to be a better teacher this month than I was last month,” he says.
As a girl, Carrie Hansen attended a K-8 school in Oldham, South Dakota, that had only 27 students. She grew up to be a teacher, principal, and advocate for small community schools. “For the students of today, bigger just isn’t better,” Hansen says.
She found herself in front of a high school classroom at age 19, armed with an emergency certification. It was the start of a career that would span 54 years.
The 80-year-old has taught every K-12 grade, but she’s also been a staff development specialist and a director of school personnel, not to mention a lobbyist: In the late 1960s, she took a six-week sabbatical from teaching to persuade the South Dakota legislature to better fund education.
Hansen also spent 17 years as principal of a tiny elementary-only Nebraska district. When the state proposed consolidating such small rural schools with larger districts, Hansen became an activist again, helping found an organization to fight for small schools.
Last year, Hansen returned to the classroom to teach elementary science. After she retires in June, she plans to substitute teach. Says Hansen: “It’s how you stay young.”