Huffman taught old school – and that's a good thing

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 28, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Before she walked out of Isenberg Elementary School and retired Friday, Ellen Huffman performed many “lasts.”
For the last time she told her kindergarten students to line up for lunch.
She danced one last time with her kids to a song on her old record player.
She changed a child out of soiled pants on her last day.
And Friday was the last time Huffman sent Silverton the bear home with a child for the weekend.
For the record, Silverton made the trip with Kendrick Cornelius. Kendrick will return Monday with Silverton and tell his classmates of all the adventures he and his family shared with the little brown bear.
During the week to come, teacher Brittany Battle – Huffman’s young and able replacement – will be responsible for the care of Silverton until he leaves next Friday with another student.
Even at 17, Silverton is low-maintenance, though stuffy.
Huffman routinely put him in the washing machine after each weekend visit. His blue-and-white railroad engineer’s cap and overalls have held up well since 1995, when Huffman first introduced him to a class.
With her sewing kit, she had to mend places on Silverton now and then, but relatively few for all he has been through.
Silverton has attended weddings and funerals. He has made trips as far away as New Jersey, the N.C. Zoo, Fort Bragg and South Carolina
(Huffman bought him during a summer job in Silverton, Colo.)
Silverton fishes, dances, goes on sleepovers, eats out, attends church and shows up at cookouts and birthday parties.
Every time Huffman sent Silverton off for the weekend, she hoped she was teaching her students to be responsible. But she also was using Silverton as a tool, a way to sneak into the lives of her children when they weren’t in school.
Every time Silverton came back, a family journal returned with him, describing what the family had done that weekend.
Huffman collected three books filled with those journals over 17 years of Silverton’s travels,
When it comes to teaching, you might say the 60-year-old Huffman is from the old school.
She won’t miss the demands on today’s teachers who walk around like coaches with clipboards, constantly sorting, counting, evaluating and testing.
She is quite happy to leave the long hours of arriving between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and going home at 6 p.m. when the custodians are locking the doors.
How could she miss all the acronyms teachers have to deal with – the DRA, SRA, AIMS, AGS, EOGs, CPAA, PDPs, PEPs, AIG, PCs, DCs, PBNIS, DEC1s, PROBES and INTERVENTIONS?
It’s pretty comical just to hear all those letters. But it’s not fun for teachers and, Huffman will tell you, it’s not teaching, either.
“You can’t teach until you know your child and you know their families,” she says. “You have to develop a relationship with the family … on all sides.”
That’s never easy, especially when teachers also are dealing with those acronyms.
This year has been unique for Huffman because she has been able to serve as a six-week mentor and assistant for Battle. With the sick days and annual leave she had used up with a hip replacement and her husband’s triple-bypass heart surgery, Huffman needed the six weeks in this school year to reach the retirement age she wanted.
Battle relished having Huffman in the classroom.
“I really believe any first-year teacher should have a mentor,” Battle says.
The short time frame also was good for Huffman because she didn’t become as emotionally vested in the children as she would have been had she waited until Christmas.
“They get hold of my heart,” Huffman says. “This was a wonderful way to transition.”
Huffman wound up with 38 years of teaching, including 34 leading a kindergarten class (or Head Start). She spent her last 12 years at Isenberg, but also had teaching stints at Henderson, Duncan, Overton and China Grove schools.
For four years, she taught English as a second language, covering six different locations.
Back before this kind of thing became impossible, Huffman took her classes on field trips and had them over to her home for mini-pumpkin pies and hot chocolate.
Huffman also used to make a Thanksgiving feast for her students and often tied learning to food and nourishment.”B” was for “bread,” for example, so it was routine for her to bake bread for her students.
Over the years, the 4-foot-10 Huffman dressed up for roles such as George Washington, “the shortest Abe Lincoln” and a fireman – and has all the pictures to prove it.
When you teach this long, you naturally begin to instruct the children of former students. Three of her kids last year had parents who had once been in Huffman’s kindergarten class.
A New York native, Huffman holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Huffman started teaching in 1974.
She has two grown sons from a previous marriage and now belongs to the peach-growing Huffman clan that also raises cattle. It’s calving season, she reports, and the farm already has “36 on the ground” with 12 more to come.
Her first travels in retirement will be an October sojourn to the mountains with her husband, Kevin, They also expect to be taking a longer trip to Pennsylvania later this fall to retrieve a bull for the herd.
“It’s time for me to move on to family life,” Huffman says.
She wants to spend more time with her two young grandchildren and care for her mother and father-in-law. She laughs that she’ll have time to clean her house and decompress for once.
Maybe she will volunteer at places such as Rowan Vocational Workshop or nursing homes, Huffman says.
But she also thinks the day will come when she feels up to substitute teaching – little ones, of course.
“There’s always going to be a foot in some door where children are involved,” Huffman says. “I don’t teach anyone taller than me, so I’m limited.”
Battle promises Silverton will live on. Huffman knows he’s in good hands – many, many hands.
At her retirement, Huffman wrote a letter to her parents, fellow teachers and friends. In it, she shared words from Robert Fulghum’s “All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back the way you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that are not yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day. When you go out in traffic, hold hands and stick together.
“Those are very important things to learn from life,” Huffman says.
That, and “B” is for “bread.”
Better yet, “B” is for “bear.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or