“Hey, darlin’” said Mrs. Conley to the school principal first thing in the morning. “Hey darlin’” she said again with a hug to a fifth grader as he walked into her classroom. "Hey darlin'" she said to the local reporter who greeted her for an interview.
Betty Conley has been the grandmother figure at since even before she became a real grandmother. In her classroom sits a comfortable couch, an old rocking chair (frequently her teaching platform), and a piano she sometimes plays and sings along with to entertain the children. Conley takes pride playing the grandmother role. She said parents are the ones helping the children clamber up the mountains, and grandparents are the ones that get to show them the view from the top.
Conley has taught at Buckhead's Sarah Smith for 30 years, longer than anyone else. Previously, she taught in other schools, but she calls Sarah Smith her “first love.” She’s been teaching fifth graders since the day she started. This spring Conley will retire.
Dr. Sidney Baker, principal of Sarah Smith, said Conley was one of the first people in the school to welcome him when he began work there. He mentioned to her once that he loved jelly beans, and for years afterwards he would sometimes find a bag of them in his mailbox or sitting on his desk in the morning. “I always knew who they were from,” he said.
“She’s been taking care of us,” Baker said. “Now it’s time for her to say, ‘Now y’all take care of me.’”
Conley said she has had a great career, and now she is moving on to become a substitute teacher at various schools in the Atlanta district. “I’m not starting a new chapter in my book,” she said, “but a whole new book.” She sees the change as an opportunity to meet even more students.
Caring for the students and teaching is her passion. Conley likes to give each child a hug and good word every day. She said being a teacher is really being a counselor. “I take that responsibility very seriously,” she said.
Students often approach her in confidence to share their feelings. The stories she remembers are often sorrowful. She will never forget one child who approached her after a poetry reading and said, “Mrs. Conley, if life is a rose garden, mine has been trampled and there is no tomorrow.” It brought tears to her eyes, but Conley tried to encourage and comfort her student. At the end of that school year, the student confessed to Conley, “There is sunshine tomorrow.”
Other moments of counseling are more common to fifth graders, like mourning a pet’s death. “Oh my Lord,” Conley said, as if pitiful faces of hundreds of students and their lost pets’ names were flashing through her mind.
John Blackwell was a student teacher with Conley 15 years ago. Now he is a full-time fourth grade teacher at Sarah Smith, in a classroom one floor above Conley’s. He said, “She helped me see how much enjoyment you can get out of a relationship with the students.”
But it’s not all counseling in Conley’s classroom. She can hardly pick her favorite subject to teach – American history, creative writing, mathematics (teaching kids to like it). The entire student body, however, might agree that the best part of being in Mrs. Conley’s class is the annual Shakespeare Festival. Every student memorizes verses, 11-year-old boys don tights and wear rouge, and the whole school comes to watch Mrs. Conley’s fifth grade class perform Shakespeare. Fourth graders this year will be sad to miss the closing tradition.
“I love doing creative things,” Conley said, “and mingling in the academics.”
Blackwell said she taught him the importance of “connecting the fun and the learning and taking the time to do the fun.”
“She [teaches] because she likes to do it,” Blackwell said. “That makes all the difference in the world.”
Conley will always love teaching, but she doesn’t enjoy the technology teachers are required to use now-a-days, or all the paperwork involved. She wants to stop now before the work becomes tiresome.
“I think she could keep going,” Baker said, “but technology has left her behind a little bit.” Conley created a class website when teachers were required to do so, but it was not her favorite activity. “I’m gonna miss seeing her around,” the principal said.
When Baker announced Conley’s retirement at a recent faculty meeting, she received a standing ovation from her co-workers congratulating her years of dedicated work. Baker said Conley has always been a cooperative team player with the staff, and a “trouper” throughout all the changes in the school.
On May 24 Sarah Smith will host a reception in the gym to celebrate Conley’s teaching career. All her previous students are invited to attend and show their appreciation.
“She’ll remember every one of them” Baker said.
The last and 26th annual Shakespeare Festival, put on my Mrs. Conley’s fifth grade class, will take place May 20. As usual, the students are invited the following Saturday to Mrs. Conley’s house for a cookout celebration of their hard work, as well as to play billiards and basketball and watch a movie.
At the fifth grade promotional ceremony this spring, Conley will offer her traditional song, “Sunrise, Sunset” (from "Fiddler on the Roof"), singing for her last graduating class.
It will be hard to say good-bye to the longest-standing teacher at Sarah Smith. Blackwell called her the last of the traditional teachers. “The history she holds will be gone once she’s gone,” he said.
Conley said she is not giving up teaching, just changing the style. "I see it as a new challenge and adventure," she said.