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Bob Terry navigated change from Navy life to classroom teacher

In honor of Veterans Day, last week I shared about Bob Terry, a retired Naval officer who after 20 years in the military began a second career in 1994 teaching fifth grade at Cleveland Elementary School. Last week’s column centered around his Navy career. This week is about his life as an educator.
Believing the Navy helped prepare him for his second career as a teacher, Bob said it not only taught him to have high expectations, but it also provided him with unique experiences he later brought into the classroom. Looking back, some of his colleagues think the Navy may have prepared him a little too well because they remember Mr. Terry as somewhat tough on his students in the beginning.
Colleague and fifth grade teacher Betty Massey remembers those days.
“When Bob first started, he had this idealized notion he could change the world,” she said, “but over time came to realize he couldn’t change the world, but could change one kid at a time.”
Bob laughed and said, “Yeah, that first year was tough. Betty and I had many late night conversations over the phone. Not only did she help me plan, but she helped me have more realistic expectations.”
Smiling, Betty said, “During those first few months, Bob couldn’t understand why his students had difficulty passing his tests. He’d shake his head and say, ‘We went over everything in class. They should know it by now.’ ”
Trying to explain, Betty would say, “Bob, your tests are too hard. You have to remember you’re teaching 10-year-old children, not men and women in the Navy.”
Although Mr. Terry might have been a little tough on his students in the beginning, he eventually found the balance students need to succeed and thrive in school. Kim Nance, a systemwide art teacher, knows Bob well because she started teaching at Cleveland the same year he did. Kim said, “While it’s true children at times need someone that’s firm to help them succeed, they also need a balance of fun. Mr. Terry found that balance and that’s why children love being in his class.”
At the end of this year, Bob and Betty will have been teaching fifth grade in adjoining rooms for 20 years. To teach the same grade in the same room side by side for that many years is almost unheard of in today’s educational climate. Yet, since they complement each other’s teaching style, one can understand why principal Becky Kepley-Lee has left them together.
Bob and Betty, on the other hand, attribute their success over the years to everyone working together, building a foundation in kindergarten that continues up the grades.
With educational changes taking place that Bob and Betty don’t necessarily agree with, they both have decided to retire at the end of this school year. Betty always said she would retire when Bob retired. Bob had always planned to retire when a student in his class said he taught their mom or dad. That happened this year.
It was only a coincidence, because Bob had already made up his mind due to the educational climate that this would be his last year — with a sigh of sadness, and in some ways, relief, Betty said, “It’s been a fast 20 years.”
Without saying a word, Bob nodded in agreement.
As I sat in his classroom chatting with Bob and Betty late one afternoon, (they stay late most days), I noticed a huge bulletin board of student photos on a wall. When I asked Bob if those were all of his students, he said, “All, but the first year.” Calling it his wall of fame, he shared how he sometimes looks at the photos, proud he’s taught students who later became doctors, lawyers and teachers.
“How can society place such a low value on a profession that in essence touches the future?” he asked.
I looked at him and said, “I don’t know, Mr. Terry. I guess that’s a story for another day.”
During our conversation, one of the overriding themes from Mr. Terry was how much he wanted to make a difference as a teacher. With that theme in mind, a few days later, I mentioned what Mr. Terry had said to one of his parents. With a smile on her face, she said, “He’s already made a difference in my daughter’s life. She now loves school and can’t wait to get out of bed in the mornings. This is a major turnaround in our house.”
After talking with that parent, I thought it would be great if students in Mr. Terry’s room could write about how he has made a difference in their lives this year.
Miranda Miller said, “Mr. Terry shows you different ways to do things until you get it right.”
Kyler Lawson and Emily Wilhelm shared how he taught them to multiply using double digits.
Gracie Wise explained, “Mr. Terry straightens out kids who ‘goofball’ around. He can be strict sometimes, but he’s always nice and fair to everyone. I love Mr. Terry. He’s the best.”
Brenda Mancia-Lemus said, “Mr. Terry might get angry like a gorilla at times, but he’ll get over it fast. He’s always joking and laughing with us. These are the main reasons people like Mr. Terry as a teacher.”
Rachel Pence, a student in Mr. Terry’s class 10 years ago, shared in a letter how he made a difference in her life. Used with permission, here’s part of that letter.
“In your classroom, learning was fun. We understood fractions and percentages through word problems involving our classmates. By raising and caring for lizards, we discovered new things about science and nature. We raced against the clock and each other, improving our math and writing skills. You entertained us constantly with your military stories and songs. There was always something new and exciting going on.
“When I return to visit your classroom, I look at the board covered with pictures of your students. There’s a story with each one of them you’re more than happy to share, recalling anecdotes from their time in your class, proudly describing their latest accomplishment. Every one of those children were impacted positively by you. You taught them to learn through laughter and gave them the confidence to do great things. Thank you for the difference you have made in their lives, and especially in mine.”
During this Thanksgiving season, we all should be grateful for teachers like Mr. Terry who are making a difference. Perhaps the N.C. Legislature can translate that gratitude into a little more money in teachers’ paychecks next year. With no raise in five years, they so deserve it. Besides, just like Mr. Terry said, “Teachers touch the future.” If you don’t believe him, just ask his students.
Dicy McCullough’s books are available at local bookstores, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Call her at 704-278-4377.

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