For 39 years, Donna Duff has taught first grade in Brown County. Thirty-eight of them were at Helmsburg Elementary School.
And at the beginning of each school year, Duff asks her students a very important question: Did she have their mom, dad, aunts or uncles in her class?
“The hands go up and we talk about it,” she said.
“It is always an honor to have someone trust you with their children, but when it is a former student, you feel that maybe you did something right.”
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Even Brown County teachers can say they’ve had Duff as a first-grade teacher. At the beginning of this school year, Brown County Intermediate School math teacher Mitzi Garman was sitting with a group of students when Duff walked by.
“She sees me and says, ‘There is my first-grade teacher.’ We all laughed as I said, ‘Yes I was,’” Duff said.
“I have always told my students that they are my kids for the rest of our lives. I truly mean this. We are connected.”
Some of her “students” weren’t even in her classroom. At a retirement reception May 17, Superintendent Laura Hammack credited Duff with teaching her how to be a principal. Hammack was principal at Helmsburg for three years.
“Donna took care of me from the very beginning. She took care of all of the boys and girls. Donna has touched so many lives here in Brown County,” she said.
Q: What made you decide to be a teacher?
A: I had a wonderful neighbor, Mary McGrayel, Lucy (McGrayel)’s mother, who sparked my interest in teaching before I ever started school. I always wanted to learn new things and teaching was a perfect fit. My school experience was filled with interesting and wonderful teachers in Brown County.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about retirement?
A: I really haven’t thought a lot about what I will do during retirement. I would like to start a bucket list and spend more time with my family and friends. My bucket list is just starting to be created. There are so many things that I want to go see and experience. My favorite vacations with my family were the ones where we got in the car and just went without a plan. … I have always been interested in history, so I am sure going to some historical sights will be included. I want to work in my flower beds and just sit back to figure out what I want to be, as the old saying goes, “When I grow up.”
Q: What will you remember most about teaching?
A: I think I will always remember the sense of family. When life happens, good or bad, we support each other. You do not have to work in a certain building or in a certain position. We celebrate life’s good times with smiles, laughing and celebrations. We are also there for each other during loss, tears and hard times. I always enjoy watching the accomplishments of the students. I enjoy going to graduation and seeing my former students walking across the stage. Then, being able to see them as adults and starting their own lives is so rewarding. Teaching is one job where sometimes you may not see an immediate reward for the work you have done, but if you wait for it, first-graders do some amazing things.
Q: How would you describe your time at Brown County Schools?
A: I literally have been a part of Brown County Schools all of my life. So to say how I feel about my time here seems to have only one answer: It was my life.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a new teacher?
A: Remember to slow down and enjoy the small moments. Many times the workload, reports and stresses of the changing world of education seem to be overwhelming. Then you remember something funny, cute or touching that you witness during the day. These memories may be from students, parents or your fellow staff. Those are the moments you will cherish and be the stories you will retell over the years. And yes, they will have stories about you, too.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Brown County is unique in many ways. There are many people who you will meet and share your life with. Imagine getting to share that experience with people who you grew up with, went to school with, taught their children and then had the honor to teach their grandchildren. Then on top of that, you get to meet friends you will make for life with everyone who works daily to make sure that the children of Brown County are supported during their school years.