Love of Learning: Decatur teacher retires after 40 years in education

By Wes Tomlinson | Staff Writer

In 40 years of teaching elementary school, Carol Shaw said she has learned just as much from her students as they have from her, and she encourages young teachers to develop and maintain a “children-first” mentality.

“You have to know where your kids are coming from,” Shaw said. “I know them and I try to know their parents too.”

Laura Graham said that Shaw was instrumental in teaching Graham’s granddaughter, Raiden Sivley, how to read in Shaw’s after-school study sessions.

“My granddaughter had struggled a little bit in learning how to read,” Graham said. “(Shaw) would take time to help her with her homework … and her patience with children is just phenomenal. I can’t stress how much she wants her children to succeed; that’s the big thing.”

Sivley was in Shaw’s after-school group for two years and this year is a student in her first grade class at Frances Nungester Elementary.

“I’m thankful that (Raiden) has her for a teacher this year where she can stay in her class all day,” Graham said. “I think (Shaw) is one of the greats and I’m thankful that Raiden was able to have her before she retired.”

Shaw, 63, announced she was retiring at the end of May after working for Decatur schools for 39 years, but shewon’t leave the school system completely behind her.

“I’m coming back and working as an interventionist in the fall,” Shaw said.

Shaw said she will work part time and plans to sign a contract for a year and will decide her next move in life after that year is up. She said her retirement from full-time teaching will allow her to focus more on hobbies such as working in her garden at her house.

Stayed at Nungester

Shaw hails from St. Louis and moved to Alabama after high school graduation to attend college at the University of North Alabama. She received her undergraduate degree from there and her master’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Shaw got her start teaching at the old Courtland Elementary in Lawrence County for one year where she had 11 students in her first grade class. After one year in Courtland, Shaw transferred to Lakeview Elementary School in Decatur, now known as Leon Sheffield Magnet School. She worked there for two years and then she transferred to Frances Nungester Elementary and has been there since.

Shaw said a fellow teacher at Courtland Elementary gave her the advice to know her students and said she has made it a point ever since then to do so.

Shaw said she was reminded of this advice last week when she was talking with one of her students at Frances Nungester Elementary. She said another student had gone on vacation to the beach and the student she was speaking with told her he had never seen the ocean.

“We sometimes take stuff like that for granted,” Shaw said. “You have to know where your students are coming from.”

Former Frances Nungester Principal Cheryl Bowman has known Shaw for over 10 years and said she believes Shaw’s relationship-building skills with students made her a valued and respected teacher at the school during Bowman’s tenure from 2002-12.

“She’s always had a reputation for being a champion for students,” Bowman said of Shaw. “She’s taken students that struggled with learning to being able to become scholars.”

Bowman said Shaw has even gone out of her way to buy shoes, food, clothes and backpacks for some students.

“When you say, ‘Any means necessary,’ that’s the kind of teacher (Shaw) was,” Bowman said.

Technology’s impact

This veteran educator has seen many changes take place in her career, the most significant being technology.

“I feel like education swings on a pendulum; we might focus on math for a while and then we switch and focus on reading,” Shaw said. “You hear parents say all the time, ‘Well, I didn’t learn that until I was in third grade, but now first graders are learning that.’ We have to let parents realize that education has changed and the expectations of what we had back when they were in school is a lot different than what teachers are having to teach now.”

Shaw said the one constant fact that remains after 40 years in education is that in-person instruction will always be the best teaching method.

“There’s a place for technology but I don’t think it needs to take the place of face-to-face instruction. Teachers need to still be in there teaching,” Shaw said.

Shaw said it is important for young teachers to seek advice from old teachers and to be flexible. She gave an example of a situation that would require a teacher to change their plans.

“I could think that I have the best plans for that day and I can walk in the classroom and something has happened,” Shaw said. “Those plans that I thought would work will have to be put aside and you deal with the situation that’s happening right there in the classroom.”

Shaw is one of 53 mentors in Decatur schools involved in the Alabama Teacher Mentor Program, a statewide voluntary program available to all Alabama schools. She said the program was put there to encourage first- and second-year teachers to stay in the teaching field, but she said it was a “two-way street.”

“The young teachers have to be willing to ask for help also,” Shaw said.

Bowman is currently the principal of Shwab Elementary School in Nashville and said Shaw was the “epitome of what I want to fully staff my school with.”