Sue Ethridge finds teaching too much fun to retire

Oklahoma native Sue Ethridge, whose full name is Suzanne Cunningham Ethridge, comes from a family of teachers and points to her grandmother, who taught 4th grade till she was 72, as her main inspiration for a teaching career that so far has spanned 46 years, and counting.Her grandmother, according to Sue, whose ancestry includes traces of Cherokee and Choctaw blood, was known for making learning fun for her 4th graders in her hometown of Comanche, OK where Sue grew up. Sue to this day regrets that she couldn't for some reason be in her grandmother's class in 4th grade, and says, "This was my only unhappy year in school. In any case, I wanted to be a fun teacher like her." After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor's in elementary education in 1962, Sue, who two months previously had married Navy hospital corpsman Bob, taught for a few months in New Orleans, followed by a relatively protracted interlude from June of 1963 to August of 1968 in Burbank where she taught at Thomas Jefferson School, interrupted by her two pregnancies with her male offspring, Robert and Stephen. Otherwise she concentrated on raising the two sons at home. Then that same August the couple again packed their bags and headed back to Oklahoma where Sue taught grades 5 and 6 until June the following year. Meanwhile, she had earned a master's in teaching in 1967 from Cal State LA. The frequent travel condition finally ended when Sue began teaching K-5 at Rio Hondo Elementary School in the fall of 1969. Sue said they wanted a place where there was a "sense of community and a good school system for our sons' education." They chose Downey. "We still live in the first house we bought here," she says. Sue would retire from her regular teaching job in 2004 but "because I love to teach" (Sue) and "because she's a good teacher" (Theresa Ford, her principal), she decided to unretire and promptly resumed her career at Rio Hondo without missing a beat, returning every year as a part-time Title I teacher, to work with K-2 at-risk kids. In between these periods, Sue worked on, among other things, several teacher committees for the district in the areas of language, arts, math, and music (she plays the piano), was a recipient one year of the Downey PTA Honorary Service & Continual Service award, and was named 1979-80 Elementary Teacher of the Year. Throughout most of these years, Sue says she had the good fortune of having a best friend in first grade and team teacher, Judy Kemp, who shared "the same values, love for children, and joy in teaching." Kemp, whom Sue considered her adopted sister, died in 2009. She calls the Downey United Methodist Church congregation as her church family. She says she has been closely involved with its nursery school for about 39 years, especially "since my sons were there." If indeed the main task of any teacher, according to more than one expert, is to make a subject interesting, Sue passes this measure with flying colors. In her kindergarten class, for example, dealing as she does with a veritable 'tabula rasa', she plays music tapes, uses lots of visuals, has poems or songs hung on classroom walls ("I make them see words")-all to arouse the children's interest and to make them comfortable. "I give out prizes, motivate them with rewards." Then she would, in time, gradually interweave in her interactions little bits of phonics. Sue says this is really her strength. All this is done within a group effort, i.e., communication/collaboration with their regular teachers in indicated remediation areas. "Repetition is very important especially with kids, so I constantly repeat words, bring back connections, put them in context. I talk, emphasize, exaggerate. They need good modeling, so I point out good models. But I don't press them. I try to sense when they need a zone of silence, when they're ready to say (or do) something. A good day is when you know the kids feel good, when they're playful and happy." (In this connection, Ford says: "We try to keep a good and positive environment for the kids.") "Before long, or at least before the year ends," Sue says, "the kids' learning curve is where it should be." "I'm [still] here because I want to be here. I like the challenge," Sue says. "Besides I like to work with high quality, excellent teachers, which the district has in abundance. I go home exhausted, but the beauty of teaching kids is you never get bored. They make me laugh. They brighten my day." "And I don't give up," she adds, even as she added her opinion on the current merit pay discussion: "This is a pet peeve of mine. I find the idea of measuring a teacher's worth on the basis of student performance invalid. It's hard enough to [harmonize] the students' efforts with all the diversity in their cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. To say their performance should influence teachers' assessments is just unacceptable."

********** Published: October 7, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 25