Honoring our retired educators
by Briana Webster
Nov 19, 2013 | 1466 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Retired educator Melza McElrath helps a customer at the Walker Baptist Medical Center gift shop. She, along with many others, enjoys volunteering during her spare time. – Photo by: Briana Webster.
Retired educator Melza McElrath helps a customer at the Walker Baptist Medical Center gift shop. She, along with many others, enjoys volunteering during her spare time. – Photo by: Briana Webster.
Just because someone retires from having a job doesn’t necessarily mean he or she retires from having a life. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Of the 42 million Americans age 65 or above, 18.7 percent remain in the labor force.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics stated “20.1 percent of Americans 70 to 74 years old remain in the labor force; among those 75 or older, 7.5 percent still work.” 

The week of Nov. 18-22 is recognized as American Education Week. The Tuesday of American Education Week is set aside and celebrated to honor the state’s retired education personnel.

Local retired educators find joy in volunteering their time by serving others through many different avenues of giving back to the community. Three in particular devote many hours a week toward volunteering because they “enjoy helping people.” 

Charles Dean, Jane Roberts and Melza McElrath have more than 100 years of combined experience in education. Each one has impressive resumes of the work they have accomplished within the city and county districts.

“I think everybody should [volunteer]. It’s good for me, good for the person, of course. I love to help people; I really do,” Dean said Tuesday morning after having a meeting at the Salvation Army. “All good things are free. I think the more we do for others, the better our lives are. Mine, for sure, is.” 

Dean started teaching in 1965 and retired in 2005. He scoffed at the word “retired” last week. “That’s when I started working,” he said.

Dean is on the President’s Advisory Board at Bevill State Community College, taught the GED program at the Walker County jail for six to seven years, works with the Retired Service Volunteer Personnel (RSVP), was president of the Walker County Teacher Association for three terms, president of the Walker County Education Retirees Association for two years and continues to serve as a member of the association, volunteers at Shady Grove Baptist Church as a Sunday School teacher, musician for the choir and trustee, participates on the advisory board at the Salvation Army where he finds volunteers through the retired teachers’ association and literacy council members to read to students in the HeadStart programs, and oversees the fatherhood initiative program at the Jasper Area Community Service Center — which is the only program he receives monetary payment for.

“You’ve got to love what you do. ... Volunteering, it’s helping to lift people up, regardless of age, race, anything,” Dean said about why he likes volunteering. “I’m just a people person. I love people.” 

Roberts taught for 41 years in the education system. She said she knew she wanted to be a teacher by the time she was in the third grade.

She taught two years at Susan Moore in Blount County, one year at Carbon Hill, was at Curry High School for 10 years, Sumiton for eight years, Oakman Elementary for 12 years and ended her career in education at Dora High School, where she taught for eight years. During the summers, Roberts taught summer school for 18 years at Walker High School.

Roberts now volunteers her time with the Alabama Education Association, at Mt. Vernon Vacation Bible School and her church at Union Chapel United Methodist Church. She is currently the vice president of the Walker County Education Retirees Association. She has also volunteered her time at Memorial Park, Bevill State and Curry Elementary. She helped remediate students at Dora High School in preparation for the graduation exams.

“I enjoyed my years of teaching at the different schools, and someone said, ‘Well, which did you like best?’ I liked it all, wherever I was at during that particular time, I really enjoyed it,” Roberts said Wednesday after volunteering to read to students in Valley’s HeadStart program. “... It is my responsibility as a member of the community, and as an ex-educator, to try to do what I can to help the youth of today.” 

McElrath, another retired educator, also worked with both Dean and Roberts in the school systems, where she taught for 31 years teaching English, reading and typing. She graduated from Alabama State University in 1957; however, back then it was still known as Alabama State College, McElrath explained proudly. Shortly after she graduated, McElrath began her teaching career at Dunbar High School in Carbon Hill. She remained at Dunbar, which was a school for African Americans, until the schools were allowed to integrate. From there she went to Carbon Hill Jr. High and taught until 1973. She ended her teaching career in 1988 after leaving Carbon Hill and teaching her remaining 15 years at Jasper Jr. High School, which is now known as Maddox Middle School.

Since her retirement in 1988, McElrath started volunteering at the Walker Baptist Medical Center’s hospital gift shop. When asked why she volunteers, McElrath said “because I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting people, and I like to help where I can. It’s my livelihood.” 

She also said it’s important for everybody to volunteer their services “in order to get to know other people and to help them to enjoy life better.” 

McElrath spends her time working as the chairman of the gift shop volunteers, working with her Sunday School class at Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Cordova and as membership chairman of the Walker County Education Retirees Association, where she has been a member since 1988.

Each retired educator articulately spoke and agreed on two items of importance that stand out in education today — valuable lessons that should be taught and the evolution of education from when they taught in the public school systems to today’s education.

“Let them know that there’s someone who cares for them. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have with young people now. They don’t have people showing them that ‘I love you, I care for you, and I’ll do for you.’ People are constantly putting them down. We can’t put people down,” Dean said. “... Too much paper work, less people work. Teachers don’t have the opportunity to teach kids, to teach them or to understand them and find out where they are, and try to lift them up. Pushing paper, pushing kids down. Papers up, kids down.” 

Roberts said an important lesson for students to learn and understand today is “to learn to like themselves and to learn how to share. We’re all in this together, and we need to take care of each other.” 

“Kids are kids, no matter whether it was 1960, 1980 or 2010, kids are kids. I think society has changed quite a bit and the way society perceives things is different,” Roberts said. “As far as discipline is concerned, I don’t believe that children have as much willpower, or control, over their behavior and emotions as they need to.

“Back when I first started teaching, very few mothers worked. You had a lot of stay-at-home mothers,” she continued. “There was more continuity of the behavior from home to school. Now with both parents having to work, I can see a difference.” 

McElrath said the most valuable lessons the younger generations should learn today is “respect and learn to read.” 

“If they learn respect, number one they will respect themselves, and then they will respect others. If you can’t read, you’re going to have a problem in society,” McElrath said.

She said the main difference in education from when she taught as compared to today’s education centers around home life.

“The attitude and performance of some of the students, their attitudes toward their lessons and their behavior, so to speak,” McElrath said. “A lack of home training because children are not taught respect in the home and, quite naturally, it’s going to come out in the schools.”