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800 years of experience retires from Bulloch County School System
Dedicated individuals share experiences in local schools
Raiford Johnson
Portal High's Raifod Johnson, center, aids eleventh graders Chris Hendrix, left, and Justin McNure, right, in rebuilding a go-cart engine Thursday during his Ag Mechanics class. In his 26 years at Portal, Johnson has coached every sport offered to students. - photo by KATHERINE KENNEDY/Staff

When the final bell sounds on the last day of school this year, 800 years of experience will walk out the doors of Bulloch County Schools. Thirty teachers, administrators and staff will retire at the end of this school year.


They will pack up the red pens, the gold stars and clean out their desks. As they reach back into the corners of desk drawers and shelves, they will inevitably find long forgotten mementoes, sparking memories of students they’ve taught, nurtured, disciplined, worried about, shed tears and lost sleep over.


At a retirement dinner held recently in their honor at R.J.’s Seafood and Steaks, the soon-to-be retirees were treated to a meal that they didn’t have to cook, where they didn’t have to worry about lunchroom duty or trying to return a call to a parent before the bell rang.  Instead the air was filled with cheerful conversation, inside jokes and laughter—all evidence of the shared mission of educating boys and girls.


Addressing the group, Superintendent Dr. Jessie Strickland, who will also be leaving at the end of the school year, said: “You don’t work at a job this long or with boys and girls that you don’t have mixed feelings at a time like this. Thank you for your many years of service.”


Each principal spoke a few words about each retiring teacher or staff member. Repeatedly, the word “dedicated” was chosen to describe these individuals who devoted their lives to teaching our children—the leaders of tomorrow. They must have done a good job because at least two principals spoke in honor of teachers who were their former teachers.


Next, the future retirees spoke. Some laughed. Some spoke of future involvement with boys and girls. Some will go fishing. Some seemed uncertain about this new journey they will embark upon in less than a month. Nevertheless, they all expressed their love for teaching and their appreciation for their families at home.


One example of dedication is Linda Sparrow who has worked in the lunchroom at Nevils Elementary School for 35 years. She was born and raised in Bulloch County and came to work at Nevils when her children were small.


All of her five children attended Nevils Elementary, as well as six of her 13 grandchildren. One of her great grandchildren will attend Nevils next year.


Sparrow’s day begins when she arrives for work at 6:15 a.m. She cooks the meats and vegetables every day.


“When I open that door, I turn on the oven,” she said.


Sparrow served as assistant manager until this year when she turned that role over to Becky Sanders. Since Sparrow won’t be moving into the new school lunchroom in the fall, she stepped down so that Sanders could train on the new equipment, as well as learn the duties of the assistant manager.


Sparrow said, “I came in an old school, and I’m going out in an old school.”


Many things have stayed the same over the years, but many changes have occurred, as well. Much of the lunchroom equipment in use now dates from the 1970s. They still make homemade rolls, but they are serving many more fruits and vegetables than before.


Manager Linda Brown said, “They’re eating broccoli and carrots like they’re going out of style.”


The lunchrooms continue to find ways to reduce the amount of sugar and fat in the foods they serve. Sparrow actually discovered a way to reduce the fat in ground beef. One day, she was trying to thaw some of the meat, so she put it in the bowl of a mixer and poured some hot water over it. She turned on the mixer, using the paddle to break the meat into smaller pieces. What happened next was amazing. As the mixer continued to break the meat in to smaller pieces, the beef fat or tallow began to cling to the walls of the mixing bowl.


Sparrow has also seen changes in the children. She said there are more of them so that she is always adding more food to the pot.


Also, she said: “The boys are wearing their pants falling off of them. They used to wear belts, but they don’t have belts anymore.”


Sparrow’s plans for retirement include fishing, travel, her church, her chickens, family and coming back to help around the lunchroom. She is a member of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Pembroke.


In June, she will travel to Philadelphia to visit her sister for a week. They talk every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. Sparrow is really looking forward to seeing her sister.


Fishing for bream and catfish is a passion that Sparrow intends to pursue in retirement. Like any good fisherman, she was hesitant to reveal the location of her honey hole. She would only say that she fishes in a private pond off U.S. 1 and the Ogeechee River.


She also plans to come back to help out in the new lunchroom occasionally.


“I’ll probably come back and help with Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she said.


Brown was quick to say, “She’s coming back because she thinks we can’t make the dressing.”


Brown and Sparrow dissolved into laughter over that statement revealing the depth of a bond built over the last nine years.

Another example of dedication is Raiford Johnson at Portal Middle High School, who has spent 26 of his 35 years of teaching there. Originally from Kite, he taught at Emanuel County Institute, Swainsboro Middle and in Richmond Hill prior to teaching at Portal.


When Johnson and wife Sherrie were living in Richmond Hill and expecting their first child, they decided to return to their home. He places a high value on living in a small town.


Johnson said: “I’m from a small town and went to a small school. It’s real special to me.”


He and Sherrie now live in Garfield. Sherrie teaches at Swainsboro Elementary and will retire in three years. She took 10 years off to spend time with daughters Stephanie and Jo'elle. Both daughters live in Watkinsville within two miles of each other. The Johnsons have three grandsons and one granddaughter, all children of Stephanie who is also a teacher.


Though Johnson has taught a variety of classes over the years, he now teaches Health and Personal Fitness and Agricultural Mechanics.


“When you teach at a small school, you end up having to teach a variety of classes,” he said.


Through the years, Johnson has enjoyed teaching and coaching, but he gets a brighter gleam in his eye when he talks about the Ag Mechanics class, which includes instruction in carpentry, welding and small engines.


The projects in this class provide real world experience for students. Over the years, students have fabricated auto parts from scrap metal, learned to weld on an antique car frame, built benches for the campus, as well as performed various maintenance projects around the school.


“Basically, we tackle anything,” Johnson said of the class.


Also, Johnson, who retired from coaching in 2005, coached many different sports during his career. One year in particular was a heavy coaching load for him. He served as head coach for all the major sports teams except track. After the long days, he would come home around 10 p.m. and wake up his children to spend time with them.


When you marry an educator, you marry a career, too. 


Johnson said: “My family, especially my wife, is very supportive of me. I don’t think too many people would have been able to stay together under the circumstances, especially with the coaching. Sherrie’s been the No. 1 person in my life.”


Reflecting on the many changes he has seen over his 26 years at Portal, he said one of his personal favorites came about when they air conditioned his office in the gym. He laughed and said it got awfully hot in there as it still does in the rest of the gym that is without air conditioning.


One particular change of the several he’s seen is in the lifestyles of his students. In the past, it was not uncommon for an athlete to say, “Coach, I can’t come to practice today. Daddy needs me on the tractor.”


Referring to Portal, Johnson said, “We’ve gone from rural life to city life, in a way, without the city.”


Another change Johnson mentioned was the refusal of students to do work outside the classroom like homework, papers or projects.


“There are so many who go from bell to bell,” he said.


Johnson also sees many challenges ahead for Portal. Getting the children to participate in Personal Fitness classes is a challenge. He said that this country has the most overweight middle and high school students in the world and those are the ones who resist participating in the fitness classes.


Another challenge that Johnson sees is the No Child Left Behind Act.


He said: “We’re pushing so many through who are not ready. President Bush doesn’t know what it’s like to be in rural southeast Georgia.”


Probably one of the biggest challenges he sees for Portal is getting a new school.


“I feel like it would be the biggest mistake in the world to close this school. You can do more for kids when you don’t have so many,” he said.


Johnson has many interests that will keep him busy during retirement.


“I’m going to miss it, but my grandchildren, antique cars and my country home will keep me pretty busy,” Johnson said.


The Administration will see a few retire this year, as well. Dianne Bath, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning will retire after 30 years.


During her teaching years, she taught all grades, as well as served as a principal. She taught art, music and physical education when no teacher was available to teach these classes because she thought it was important for children receive instruction in these areas.


Bath said, “I guess what drives my work ethic is what I expect other people to teach my child.”


Bath said that perhaps her most humbling thought is that people don’t get to choose the parents they’re born to. She sees education as the opportunity that can really impact their lives.


On teaching and learning, Bath said: “Children don’t learn in the same way on the same day. You may have to go back and refresh. Teaching has not occurred until learning takes place. It’s only presentation up to that point.”


Even after becoming an administrator, which also requires her to perform diverse tasks, she puts her teaching philosophies to use.


“I always liked teaching a variety of classes. I liked planning for the different classes. The different classes kept me fresh, and I needed to be just as fresh for the last class as I was for the first. I found that I was only as excellent as I planned to be,” she said.


Throughout her administrative career, she has contributed greatly to the educational success in Bulloch County schools. She has been the “Chief Worrier” in the school improvement process.


Bath said, “One of the greatest lies being told today is that personal life doesn’t impact professional life.”


Her definition for good leadership is moral guidance, recognizing that having a position gives you some opportunities to do something and to encourage things to happen. Good leadership also involves empowering good people to do good things.


“I believe in servant leadership, releasing the power, or the power you think you have, to empower others.” she said.


Bath also believes that you’ve got to know where you’re going.


“How will you know when you get there, if you don’t. You have to know what you want in the end,” she said.


Working with Georgia Southern University and others, she has determined what is expected of students and backed up from that point into the high schools to make sure they’re prepared. Her goal has been to set a standard and drive the school district to that level.


Part of the school improvement process is looking at individual student needs and finding ways to develop individual plans to address those needs. Teacher development is one way to meet those needs.


“It’s always been No Child Left Behind with us,” she said. “This is my home. The children are my neighbors. If they do well, I’ll be better for it.”

Bath said teacher frustration with the No Child Left Behind Act comes from having just one test to determine a student’s progress. Also, data interpretation has been a headache, but new software to drill down or interpret the data should help in that area.


Also, she said that legislation makes many assumptions that people will come to the table to meet the needs of students, and it just doesn’t always happen. Some of the most difficult challenges are social problems. Teachers are trained as educators, but they are asked to play many roles for which they aren’t trained.


Looking for ways to meet the needs of students led to collaborations between the Bulloch County Board of Education and the Boys and Girls Club and the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation department, among others. The collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club was the first such collaboration to receive a 21st Century Grant.


Bath expects to see significant changes in high schools in the future as schools continue to develop methods to meet the needs of their students. The Performance Learning Center, which is a center for students whose educational needs are not being met through the traditional school program, may be an example of the high school of the future.


Bath hopes that she’s sown the seeds for the future with models for collaboration between the school system and other agencies.


“What I never want to happen is for what I started to die out,” she said.


Bath will soon be sowing seeds of a different variety. She loves gardening. Her parents are in good health, and she hopes to do some traveling with them. Her daughter Chanda is expecting the first grandchild in August.


“God will lead me to the next level. God has truly blessed me,” she said. “I’ve worked for and with so many good people.”


If any of the retirees were expecting to rest on their laurels, Danalyn Akins, President of the Bulloch Retired Educators Association, was at the dinner to make sure they knew better. She and John Karrh, incoming president, were there to encourage the retirees to become involved with the association.

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