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Saunders retiring after 33 years

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By John Barnhart

This is Sue Saunders’ last year as principal at Bedford Elementary School.

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    When Saunders walks out of her office for the last time next month, she ends a 33-year career in education that was spent entirely in Bedford County  Public Schools.

    Saunders is from everywhere. An Air Force brat, she lived in a number of places. At one point, her father’s military career had him posted to the radar station on Apple Orchard Mountain. His family came to Bedford County with him. When he retired, he came to Bedford County and his daughter attended school here, graduating from Liberty High School in 1971.

    When she was in high school, she originally thought of becoming a nurse and took part in a nurse orientation her senior year at Virginia Baptist Hospital.

    “We visited the pediatric ward,” she said. “There were some very sick children.”

    Saunders said that this had a great emotional impact on her, but she knew she wanted to work with children. She decided to become a teacher.

    “I never changed my mind after high school,” she said. “I don’t regret a day.”

    She began teaching in Bedford County Public Schools at Boonsboro Elementary in January 1976 and never left the county. She also married a Bedford County boy, Barry Saunders.

    “We were high school sweethearts,” she said.

    She’s seen a number of changes since the beginning of her teaching career. At that time, the schools were experimenting with open classrooms.

    “I was teaching kindergarten without walls around me,” Saunders said.

    First grade was right beside her and she could see the second grade class. Saunders said that the teachers had to plan their classes according to the noise the activity would generate. For example, the kindergarten had a nap time, so the first and second grade teachers had to schedule something quiet during that time.

    “That didn’t last a real long time,” Saunders commented.

    Corporal punishment didn’t last long after Saunders started, either. It was already disappearing, but principals still used the paddle when she started.

    “We saw that change in the first five years,” she said.

    Saunders said that she has seen pendulum swings in teaching methods over the three decades of her career. She believes that good teachers can pull things from many sources, keeping the best from each and discarding what doesn’t work.

    One positive change is the way children who need support are handled. Saunders said that, in the past, they were pulled out of the classroom. This took time and also disengaged them. It works better to provide this support in small groups in the classroom. She said that there are times when it’s necessary to take children out of the classroom for this help, but for the most part, it doesn’t work.

    Saunders has seen major changes in technology, too. There were no desktop computers in 1976. Schools were still a world of manual typewriters. She said that her staff recently found one of these machines and they looked it over for old times sake.

    Now, everything is electronic and Saunders said that this has improved communications both with the school division’s central office and between the principal and school staff. School calendars and newsletters can go to parents electronically.

    “We can communicate quickly and efficiently,” she said.

    She said she is also seeing more communication with parents via e-mail. While this is good, Saunders still believes that face-to-face meetings are necessary.

    Technology is also a challenge for teachers as it is changing so fast. However, it also provides great tools.  One that Saunders mentioned are “smart boards.” A smart board is a large interactive “chalkboard.” It responds to touch.

    “Change is hard, change is good,” Saunders commented.

    One area in which technology has proven a challenge, besides it’s rate of change, is Internet safety. Saunders said that one of the schools’ needs is to make parents aware of the dangers for children lurking on the Web and how to use the Internet safely. She said that the Internet, as it now exists, is new to parents.

    “We are moving into a digital world,” she said.

    Saunders wonders how this digital world will impact the old elementary school emphasis on penmanship. She said that, when she first started teaching, teaching correct penmanship was important. Children still learn cursive handwriting, but she noted that there are now computer labs in third grade.

    There are also changes from school to school. Saunders has taught at Boonsboro Elementary, Forest Elementary and Bedford Primary. She’s been assistant principal at Goodview Elementary and principal at Thaxton prior to becoming Bedford Elementary’s principal. She said she’s seen some strong family relationships with the schools. She noted Thaxton Elementary for the high degree of community support it has.

    Each school has been unique, but her focus has been the same.

    “The children have always been my primary focus,” she said. “It has always been about the children.”

    Bedford Elementary is a big melting pot for the community and the challenge is to understand the diversity of the population that the children come from. Understanding a child’s family situation allows the school’s staff to be more effective.

    “It’s very rewarding when you get it right,” Saunders said.

    Getting it right may be as simple as providing a breakfast or a pair of shoes.

    Saunders went into school administration because she worked for principals who encouraged her to do so. She noted in particular Rhody Meredith and Georgia Hairston who were at Bedford Primary during her decade of teaching there.

    “They gave me a lot of leadership opportunities,” she said.

    She also credits Dr. Bobbie Johnson, currently the county’s assistant superintendent of schools.

    “I think my mentor as a school leader has been Bobbie Johnson,” Saunders said.

    Johnson originally came to Bedford County Public Schools in the late ‘80s to work with early childhood education and that’s how Saunders got involved with her.

    Another principal she notes is Eddie Zimmerman, who was principal at Goodview when she was an assistant principal there.

    Along with her school work, Saunders also helped her father-in-law, Bernard Saunders put his memoirs into writing. Bernard Saunders was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. In April, 1942, American and Filipino troops in the Philippines had, after four months of fighting, been backed up onto the Bataan Peninsula. Running out of food and ammunition, their commanding officer surrendered. The brutal treatment the men received during the march to prison camps, and in the prison camps themselves, resulted in the deaths of thousands. This resulted in the trial and execution of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, the Japanese general in command, for war crimes after the war.

    Saunders said that her father-in-law didn’t talk about it much, but bits and pieces would come out when he was asked questions at family gatherings. Then, her daughter’s middle school asked for students to bring speakers to the school. She brought her grandfather, who told his story.

    “He was asked to come back,” Saunders said.

    She said that he had two presentations — one for school groups, and one for adults.

    “I considered him a father to me,” she commented. “He was a wonderful father-in-law and a wonderful grandfather.”

    The staff of Bedford Elementary School has a send-off celebration planned for Saunders on Wednesday, May 27 at the school. It begins at 6:30 p.m. with a student art show. The art has been done by the third and fifth grade classes. People attending can vote on the winning items, which Saunders will get as a retirement gift.

    “She loves children’s art,” said Mary Jo Krufka, the school’s librarian.

    At 7 p.m., the children and faculty will perform in a play that looks back on Saunders’ 33 year career with Bedford County Public Schools. This will be followed at 8 p.m. with an hour for refreshments and reminiscing.

    If you plan to attend, contact Krufka at (540) 587-2963 or via e-mail at mkrufka@bedford.k12.va.us.