It never gets old

Published 12:16 pm Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Staff Writer

The experiences associated with the first day of school for Beaufort County’s public-school students have changed over the years — new schools have been built, new technologies have been added to classrooms and new teachers have been hired.
One thing has been constant at Eastern Elementary School in recent years — the hugs the students get on their first day at school from teacher’s aide Evelyn Dudley.
Dudley, 63, knows how to pay attention to the needs of her first-grade charges.
She has worked as a teacher’s assistant in Roxanne Beeman’s first-grade class for more than a decade and as a Beaufort County Schools employee for 42 years. 
As such, she is the public school system’s longest-serving active employee.
And she still looks forward to the opening day of school.
“I wouldn’t say it’s old hat,” she said in an interview Tuesday as she put the finishing touches on her classroom’s lunch schedule and bus assignments. “There’s still an expectancy and an excitement about the first day of a new school year.” 
“You’re meeting new children and getting to see what they can accomplish,” she said.
Dudley’s 17 new charges are among an estimated 525 Eastern Elementary School students and nearly 7,000 students throughout the county who will enter classrooms today with the start of the 2010-2011 school year.
Beeman, Dudley and the system’s other teachers, teachers’ assistants and many other school staff returned to their schools last week.
Despite the presence of long-time employees like Dudley, students and teachers throughout the system will see changes at their schools this year.
Some of these changes — such as increase in class size and changes in some course offerings — were brought about by the recent economic downturn and resulting budget cuts.
Most of those changes will not be visible to students in the classroom, according to Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps.
“The focus this year will be on instruction,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “We are trying to take the load off teachers to allow them to focus on academics.”
Many of the changes involve reductions in teacher paper work, the elimination of duplicate tasks they are asked to perform and the wider use of technology in the classroom — with an emphasis on technology that lets teachers more accurately and frequently measure student progress, Phipps said.
It’s seeing students’ progress, not only over the school year but also over the course of their lives, that Dudley enjoys most about her job.
“It’s nice to see them grow up and go on to where they need to be and know I had a hand in that,” she said.
A native of Washington, Dudley graduated from P.S. Jones High School and attended N.C. A&T University before returning home to enter the job market.
She chose education as a career for a practical reason — she needed a job and the public schools were hiring.
Over the years, she has held a variety of positions with the school system — as a typist for the English department in the local high school, as a tutor at various schools and, ultimately, as one of the first people hired as a teacher’s aide by the system.
Although she said she has enjoyed her work at all of the schools, she especially relishes the opportunity to work with young children, not only for what she can bring to them, but for what they bring to her.
“It’s a formative age. You can get them and move them in the right direction,” she said, adding, “Little children can brighten your day, and they’re just lovable at this age.”
Dudley said that, often, her charges are initially afraid of her, probably because of a facial expression she inherited from her father.
But it doesn’t take them long to warm up to her.
For Beeman, who has worked as a teacher in the Beaufort County Schools for 22 years, Dudley is more than a teacher’s assistant.
“I couldn’t do it without her,” she said.
Beeman praised Dudley for giving her much-needed support as she overcame a recent illness.
“She is 50 percent of what makes the room a happy place and a successful place for the children,” Beeman said.
Dudley has been assigned to breakfast duty this morning. She’ll be in the cafeteria providing staff support as students eat breakfast — which means she will not be in the classroom when the students arrive for class.
But, she promises, as soon as she finishes her assignment, she’ll enter the classroom with her trademark bang.
“I’ll say ‘Good morning guys!’”