If there’s one regret Principal Justin Brown has from the past eight years of working with preschool teacher Paula Sutton at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, it’s that he didn’t spend enough time in her classroom.
Seymour High School Principal Greg Prange said the hallways at SHS will never be the same after the retirement of longtime Spanish teacher Gwen Brown.
On Thursday, Sutton and Brown said goodbye to students for the final time on the last day of classes for Seymour Community School Corp. All teachers finished up with the school year on Friday.
Combined, the two teachers have 65 years in education with Sutton completing 30 years and Brown 35 years.
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They and other retirees were honored for their service during the corporation’s annual retirement banquet Thursday at The Pines Evergreen Room in Seymour.
‘It was amazing’
Sutton started her career working with students with learning disabilities in 1987 at Brownstown Elementary School and Brownstown Central Middle School. She worked in Brownstown for two years.
In 1991, she began teaching preschool students at the Seymour-Jackson Elementary Early Childhood Special Education Program.
"I absolutely loved teaching the preschoolers," she said. "I saw so much growth and progress from the students until they left for kindergarten. It was amazing."
In 2012, Jackson needed another fourth-grade teacher, so Sutton transferred, leaving preschool behind for a year.
"At the time, I was a little shocked to move, but looking back, it was a great learning experience for me," she said.
One of her fondest memories of working in special education is organizing a Champion Baseball program one summer with her co-workers. They paired special education students with peers who helped them hit the ball and run the bases.
"It was so much fun watching the students and the parents be so proud to watch their children participating on a team for the first time," Sutton said.
That evolved into the current Champions Together program, which is now the highlight of the school year, she said. Special education students throughout the corporation are paired with peers who help them learn and practice track and field skills and then compete in an end-of-year event.
She also said she’s proud of her and her co-workers’ efforts to organize a 5K walk/run to raise money to put in a handicapped accessible walkway in Jackson’s Wildcat Habitat outdoor classroom. That walkway was in honor of special needs preschool student Addie Bryden, who passed away.
"It is nice to know that Addie’s Walk is available for all to enjoy," she said.
Being the sixth of 10 children, it was really no surprise Sutton wanted to be a teacher. One of her sisters is a retired teacher, too, so education is in their blood, she said.
"Growing up, my older sisters would play school with me," she said. "Then,I would get to be the teacher for my younger sisters."
Looking back, Sutton said her sister, Barb, was her mentor because she was her first teacher.
"She taught me to spell my name when I was 3," Sutton said.
Family comes first
Her decision to retire was not an easy one to make because she loves being around her students, she said, but there is another child in need of more of her attention now.
"My oldest granddaughter will be starting kindergarten in the fall in Seattle, so I wanted to be able to visit with them more often," she said.
With her husband, Dennis, already retired, the two plan to travel more often to see their children and grandchildren. They are planning a family beach vacation in July.
Besides wanting to spend more time with family, Sutton said she knew the time was right to retire from advice given to her by Nancy Cherry, a retired speech pathologist from Seymour Community School Corp.
"She told me, ‘You will know when it’s time to go,’ and I did feel that this year," Sutton said.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t miss her life’s work.
"Of course, I will miss the students, our preschool team, our school nurse, the secretaries and the administrators," she said.
One thing she won’t miss, however, is the paperwork.
Like what you do
Sutton said the best advice she received as a teacher was from a professional development workshop last summer with Kim Strobel on the "Science of Happiness: Working Happier, Not Harder."
"She taught us to have a positive attitude, enjoy your life and leave the building by 4 o’clock because you will never finish everything you need to do," Sutton said. "It will still be there tomorrow."
It’s also important for teachers to like what they do, she added.
"As everyone says, life does go faster each and every year," she said. "So enjoy it."
Teaching isn’t an easy profession, but it is rewarding on so many levels, she said.
"We get to feel the joy when the students get it. It might be learning letters and numbers, writing a name, saying a word, taking the first step without a walker or being able to sit up on their own," she said. "All students can learn and do learn, and we get to be there when it happens."
To all of her students, past and present, Sutton said she wants them to know they have been a blessing to her.
"I think of them often and wish them the best in their futures," she said.
Inspired by her mother
Brown started her teaching career at SHS in 1980 after graduating from Franklin College. After four and a half years in Seymour, she moved to Illinois, where her husband had accepted a new job.
While in Chicago, she had six other teaching jobs. She returned to Seymour in the fall of 1999, giving her a total of 25 years teaching in public high schools and more than 35 years altogether in education.
She has taught French, Spanish and English literature and composition at all levels of high school and also taught kindergarten and was director of a family literacy program while in Illinois.
"As much as I loved working with the little ones, I have to say I prefer my high-schoolers," she said. "That time of life when they are on the brink of adulthood is quite interesting."
Brown said she became a teacher because she was inspired by her mother, who didn’t finish high school.
"I came from a family of modest means, and I remember hearing my mother tell my aunt that she hoped her children make something of themselves," Brown said. "One of the professions she mentioned was a teacher. I thought that sounded like something that suited me."
Teaching is one of the most important and impactful professions there is, she said.
"Knowledge is power," she said. "Education allows us to have freedom. What is more important to society than a well-educated populace?"
But teaching can also be a tough gig, she added.
"If you can remember at the end of the day that when you shared a laugh or a smile or a cry or a small victory with your students, then it was a good day," she said.
Advantages of retirement
Like Sutton, Brown said she decided to retire so she could travel at times other than school vacations.
"My four sons and three grandsons all live some distances from here, and they are missing out on having me in their lives," she said.
She’s also looking forward to being able to stay awake later at nights and sleep in in the mornings.
But there are lots of aspects of being a teacher that she will miss, she said, like laughter.
Whether it was in the classroom, in the lunchroom, on a train in Europe or on a bus for a field trip, Brown said laughter is what she will remember and cherish most about her years of teaching.
She also will miss her fellow teachers.
"The best part of my time at SHS has been the wonderful people with whom I’ve worked," she said. "The foreign language department at SHS is the best group of co-workers in the world."
Some of those co-workers she considers mentors include retired English teachers Brantley Blythe and John Lewis and French teachers Julia Miller and Jane Siefert.
Advice to students
If there is one thing she wants students to know, it’s that she’s proud of them.
"I frequently run into former students, and sometimes, they sort of sheepishly acknowledge that they were in my class — maybe because they didn’t do as well in that subject as in others or because they misbehaved a bit," she said. "I would like them to know that I know that was just one small aspect of who they are or were at a young age and for some at a difficult time in their life."
She wants former students to realize every day is an adventure.
"So keep making yourself and life better," she said.
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Seymour Community School Corp. 2019 retirees
Robert Hooker, superintendent, 41 years
Karon Clifton, custodian at Seymour High School, 31 years
Susie Bridgewater, custodian at Margaret R. Brown Elementary, five and a half years
Gwen Brown, Spanish teacher at SHS, 35 years
Paula Sutton, special education preschool teacher at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, 30 years
Martha Culp, instructional assistant at Cortland Elementary School, 24 years
Elizabeth Koleszar, instructional assistant at Seymour Middle School, 24 years
Hilda Morgan, instructional assistant at SMS, 17 years
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"We get to feel the joy when the students get it. It might be learning letters and numbers, writing a name, saying a word, taking the first step without a walker or being able to sit up on their own. All students can learn and do learn, and we get to be there when it happens."
Paula Sutton, retired Seymour-Jackson Elementary School special education preschool teacher
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"If you can remember at the end of the day that when you shared a laugh or a smile or a cry or a small victory with your students, then it was a good day."
Gwen Brown, retired Seymour High School Spanish teacher