County#039;s retiring educators ready for their final bell

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 29, 2005

Soon, lockers will be cleared out, books turned in and &uot;good-byes&uot; said as local students prepare for summer vacation. For graduating seniors, it’s often a bittersweet time as they leave behind a chapter of their lives and move on to a new phase.

There is a group of adults who are also saying farewell to their schooldays. These are the teachers who are retiring from the Butler County School System.

We talk with a just of few of these soon-to-be retirees as they reflect back on their careers with their challenges and changes, and look ahead to their plans for the future.

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Three brothers in education

Johnny Autrey has been a fixture with the Butler County School System for an impressive 37 years. &uot;Yep, I’m the one with the longest tenure – but I’m definitely not the oldest in the system,&uot; the career tech director for Butler County enjoys pointing out with a chuckle.

Education, like a good sense of humor, seems to run in the Autrey family. Autrey’s oldest brother, Gene, retired from the local system 11 years ago, while Joe, the middle brother, is retired from Enterprise State Junior College where he taught accounting.

&uot;I guess we all just enjoyed working with people and helping them become prosperous,&uot; Autrey says.

A graduate of Troy State University and Montevallo, Autrey began his career at Georgiana High before transferring to Greenville High.

There he taught marketing and co-op classes for the next 29 years. He’s been the local school system’s career tech director for the past eight years, working with middle school and high school students across the county.

Even though Autrey has not worked directly with elementary school students, he says he has helped get grant monies for the local elementary schools, allowing such programs as &uot;job shadowing&uot; for their teachers.

The veteran educator has seen many changes in education come along during his years at Greenville High.

&uot;The increased stress on testing – the graduation exam is a big item that’s come to pass. Also, the different types of diplomas students can earn now, such as advanced, technical, regular. It used to be, you either got a diploma, or you didn’t,&uot; he says.

One of the biggest adjustments for faculty and students alike, Autrey recalls, was the integration of the public schools in 1970-71.

&uot;That was a difficult time for everyone, I think. And we began seeing the people leaving for the private schools,&uot; he says.

These days, the preparation for students to begin thinking about college and career options is coming much earlier, a big plus for the students, says Autrey.

And one of the &uot;grandest&uot; things he has seen happen, Autrey says, was the construction of the new high school.

&uot;You know, people see our high school and they are so impressed with it. And when you think about the fact you’ve got 800 kids in a place every day for 165-plus days a year, you have to say it has stayed in very good shape,&uot; he comments.

Autrey’s wife, Suellen, is a retired elementary teacher who spent 29 years working with kindergartners and first and second graders before retiring two years ago from W.O. Parmer.

&uot;Suellen and I went to Troy and Montevallo together. Having complementary careers was a great thing in raising our three boys – we had the same time off to spend with our children,&uot; Autrey explains.

And what does Autrey plan to do once he leaves his education career behind?

&uot;We want to do some traveling together, relax and enjoy some things – then I’ll get involved in something else to do on a somewhat regular basis. I want to keep my mind occupied so things don’t get too rusty,&uot; he laughs.

Teachers in tandem

Don Yancey strides down the hallway of Greenville Middle School, walkie-talkie in hand. He spies a student standing outside a classroom door.

&uot;You’re not standing out here because you’re in trouble, are you?&uot; Yancey asks. The boy quickly shakes his head. &uot;No sir.&uot; Principal Yancey smiles and says, &uot;That’s good to hear.&uot;

Yancey has spent his 34 years in education in Butler County as a classroom math teacher, baseball and assistant football coach, assistant principal (all on the high school level) and, for the past three years, principal of GMS.

He has also served as a bi-vocational pastor for a number of years. You could say Yancey knows a thing or two about working with people and helping them solve their problems.

But he’s still willing to learn.

&uot;When I came over here after serving as assistant principal at the high school, my wife, who has always taught middle school children, told me I would have a big adjustment to make. And she was right,&uot; Yancey admits.

&uot;Middle school is totally different than any other age group. They are going through so many changes. These kids can go from being bubbly and on top of the world one day to being at rock bottom the next. It’s a very interesting group,&uot; he says.

And there have been other adjustments to make, Yancey says.

&uot;Once you become a principal, the scope of your job is much greater. In the classroom, you are a little more isolated, dealing mainly with your students and their parents. As principal, you are involved in very facet of the school,&uot; he explains.

Being responsible for everything that happens at the school – good and bad – can be a daunting task at times, Yancey admits.

&uot;I’ve had to get used to being the person who receives the blame when things go wrong,&uot; the principal says with a wry grin.

With 30-plus years in the same school system, Yancey has seen the children and even some of the grandchildren of his earliest students pass through the doors.

And he, like Autrey, has seen many changes in the classroom.

&uot;Technology – that has to be the biggest and most positive change I have seen. It’s wonderful when it works,&uot; he says.

Modern technology now allows his teachers to get online and talk with teachers on the other side of the country, Yancey says. And he is able to accomplishments such tasks as monitoring a teacher’s lesson plans and grade book or looking over illustrations of the new school uniform policy with a few clicks of his computer’s mouse.

Though computers have brought people from thousands of miles apart together to learn, Yancey is saddened to see less and less direct parental involvement in their children’s education.

&uot;When a child comes from a family where they just aren’t cared for and loved enough, it makes a difference to their sense of worth. Parents who do care and get involved make all the difference in their children’s schooling,&uot; Yancey says.

Yancey’s wife Glenda, who has spent 29-and-a-half years in the classroom, is also retiring this year.

The fifth grade language arts teacher met her future husband as a fellow student at Troy State University.

She, for one, loves the middle school age group.

&uot;They are still enthusiastic about learning at that age – and they are fun,&uot; she says.

Glenda Yancey agrees with her husband the vast &uot;knowledge at your fingertips&uot; technology has brought to the classroom, has been the biggest change she has seen.

She also says modern children are more &uot;worldly&uot; today than in the past.

&uot;Children these days are exposed to so much more at a younger age – sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t,&uot; the classroom teacher says.

Glenda Yancey applauds the DARE program for its efforts to teach children about the dangers of drug abuse &uot;while they are still young enough not to have been exposed to it yet.&uot;

The Yanceys both agree some things don’t ever change.

&uot;Even though kids may have more knowledge and be more street savvy, they still need to feel loved, and cared for and find some success in their efforts,&uot; Glenda Yancey says.

&uot;They still have that fragile self-esteem and this needs to be nurtured,&uot; her husband adds.

Being able to see her students achieve success has brought Glenda Yancey great satisfaction over the years, she says.

&uot;I use art to teach some of the language concepts and so many of the kids don’t think they can draw. Then when they see what they can accomplish, they are amazed. That’s the power of education,&uot; she says with a smile.

Blinking back a few tears (&uot;Sorry, I’m just so tender-hearted&uot;), Glenda adds she feels the positive influence goes both ways.

&uot;You can have a positive impact on so many children, yet they also have an impact on your life, too.

"You find you want to make a difference in their lives. It’s been fun. And, yes, I am going to miss them,&uot; she says.

Glenda Yancey is considering taking a few classes to ease the adjustment into retirement.

&uot;After all, except for the first five years of my life, and one year I spent off with my daughter, I have spent my entire life in school as either a student or a teacher,&uot; she points out.

Once retired, Don Yancey plans to continue and possibly expand his church ministry. He also says, despite rumors they have heard to the contrary, the couple currently has no plans to leave the Greenville area. Nor, he says, do they want to leave the world of the classroom entirely behind.

&uot;We aren’t through with education – we are just moving on to a different phase,&uot; Don Yancey insists.

Sharing the world with youngsters

In the little town of McKenzie, Greenville native and resident Nancy Shanks has been sharing the wide world with elementary students at McKenzie School for just under 30 years.

A graduate of Troy State University, Shanks says she decided she wanted to become either a nurse or a teacher &uot;because I enjoyed helping others.&uot;

She began her first year at McKenzie School as a kindergarten teacher. The rest of her career has been spent teaching either first, second or third grades.

&uot;I have always enjoyed working with young children,&uot; she says with a smile.

The most rewarding experience by far, Shanks says, has been seeing the progress of a young child as he

learns to associate letters to sounds, and then on to reading a book on his own.

&uot;Once a child can read, his or her whole world opens up to so many challenging adventures,&uot; the veteran teacher says.

The biggest changes she has seen in education: &uot;the vast amount of technology required of teachers and students. Also, you have the numerous standardized tests that must be administered nowadays. It can be overwhelming."

For anyone who is planning to go into education, Shanks advises them to &uot;work hard at everything you do and have patience, patience, patience in working with very young children.&uot;

Shanks is the mother of two boys, Jeffrey, who lives with wife Laurie in Birmingham where he works as an accountant with Regions Financial, and B.J., a Greenville resident who is soon to graduate with a degree in electronics.

Her plans for retirement include plenty of relaxing as she travels, goes camping, fishing and gardening.

&uot;Some days I can just enjoy saying, ‘Today I’m doing nothing!’&uot; she adds with a laugh.

Combined, all of this year's retiring teacher garner 394 years of experience.