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900 years of experience

While equally important, each department in the school system has a different role to play in the education of Suffolk’s young people.

It’s the teachers in the classrooms who find themselves in the trenches.

Year in and year out, they forge relationships with their students, guide them during turbulent times and help them apply themselves.

But more than 30 teachers will retire this year, taking with them nearly 900 years of combined teaching experience.

“When I looked around at the retirement banquet, I could tell you a number of people I’ve worked with in the past,” said Brenda Smith, food and hospitality teacher at Lakeland High School. “I’ve known so many of these people from way back. I saw some of these people come into the system, and others I came in with.”

Smith has spent the past 39 years teaching in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“It was known as ‘Home Ec’ when I started the program,” Smith said.

Also, leaving this year is Cynthia Pope, a special education teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Pope has been with the school system for 32 years.

“Thirty-two years ago, when I started, most school systems hadn’t incorporated special education classes,” Pope said.

Though many school employees try to climb the job ladder, both of these teachers decided to stick to the classrooms, where they felt they had been called.

“Others can lay the framework, but what goes on with the students happens in the classroom,” Smith said. “None of it can happen without the teachers. I never wanted to go into administration. I wanted to be where the students were.”

Teaching doesn’t carry the privileges that other positions might, but Pope said there is no reward to match the ones she gets through working in the classroom.

“The greatest reward is seeing a child learn they can achieve their goals,” Pope said. “There was a young man who called me a few years ago. I’d taught him about 20 years ago. He said he just wanted to let me know that he’d kept himself from negative vices and to be proud of him, because years ago I told him I wanted to see him make something of his life and not see his name in the paper for doing something bad. Those are the things that teachers live for. It’s why we do what we do.”

Both teachers said they are looking forward to spending more time with family and friends and having a change of pace, they said.

“I’ll miss the faces here, the routine and the students,” Smith said. “But I won’t miss getting up at 5:30 a.m. to be here at 7 a.m. I won’t miss that part at all.”

“I’ve already shed a few tears of sorrow over leaving,” Pope said. “I have mixed feelings. There are quite a few of us leaving, but its good to know I’m not alone this year. Over the years, the schools have made great improvements. You know the good work will continue on.”