White blushes red at attention
One afternoon, after the bell rang at Sopris Elementary, JoEllen White made a phone call just to be polite. Earlier in the day, a reporter had called White wanting to profile her during her 41st and final year of teaching in the Roaring Fork School District.”Thank you,” she said. But, “I’m the absolute shyest person you’ll ever meet.” At Sopris alone, there are a half-dozen retiring teachers who would make better stories, she said. But none of the others had started a Glenwood Springs teaching career in 1965 at the grade school, as it was called at the time, and stuck with the third grade for over four decades.
“I knew a good thing, and I stayed,” she said, still squirming to get out of a profile. White, as kind as she is, relented and invited the reporter and a photographer to her class the next day. She read her class a version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” then let her high school assistant take over while she talked about her career. It’s time to move on, she explained while seated under a cardboard model of the Hubble telescope she stores for a school play in her classroom. When White started teaching in Glenwood Springs she was the youngest teacher in the school; now she is “the oldest teacher in our building, probably in the district,” she said.Next year, after White has taken down the X-rays from the outdoor windows and the multiplication tables from the wall, she imagines a new teacher just starting a career will take over her room. Thinking about the end of her career in those cyclical terms is what keeps her from getting sad about moving on, she said.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., “you just cannot beat this,” she said. And for many former students, White herself is tough to beat.”The most amazing thing about her is this is probably her best year teaching,” said Sopris Elementary Principal Howard Jay, who has had two kids in White’s class. Jay’s son just received his master’s degree from Northern Arizona University, and White is still his favorite teacher, said Jay. Gayla Rowe, a drama teacher at Glenwood Springs High, gives White a large part of the credit for inspiring her to become a teacher. “I had wonderful teachers before her, but there was just something about her,” said Rowe. “It was the first time I felt like someone really believed in me.”
Rowe student-taught in Glenwood Springs after college. She remembered sitting in an awards ceremony in which the Roaring Fork School District was honoring its longtime teachers. The longest-serving person recognized that night was White.”I went, ‘She’s the reason I’m here,'” said Rowe.For all that’s changed in the world since 1965, not much has changed in White’s classroom. There is much more of a community feel at school, with teamwork between teachers, parents and administrators, White said. But the kids are still good kids, the staff is still dedicated and parents still want the best, she said.And White is the same as she’s always been – smiling and unassuming and shy to talk about herself. “She just does so much for other people,” said Jay, but “she does not like the limelight at all.”
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