While packing up her classroom for the final time, Jacquie McLaurin, a fifth grade teacher at Robert E. Willis Elementary, reminisced about her 22 years as a teacher.
She found a bottle of aromatherapy lotion that a student, Matthew, gave her 10 years ago when she was a second grade teacher in Palm Beach County.
“He was such a precious child, and it made me think about him,” she said. “This is hard to believe, but his mom, with whom I taught, texted me two days later to ask if I would make a video for his high school graduation party. It was so ironic.”
McLaurin, who is retiring this year, has taught hundreds of students over her career and has had a chance to say goodbye to each of them in person on the last day of school each year.
This year is different.
Rather than saying goodbye in person, retiring teachers and staff members are giving their final goodbyes through car windows and computer screens as students remain home for e-learning.
McLaurin said she is disappointed her final year of teaching is ending with e-learning, but she understands why.
“It’s just not the same as being in the classroom with the students, but we are doing the best we can,” she said. “I’m going to miss having a place of belonging and the camaraderie of the Willis staff and parents. Willis is my second home, and I’ve made a lot of great memories and friends here. We’re like one big family. Not being a part of Willis anymore is going to be hard.”
Sally Farrell, a second grade teacher at Gene Witt Elementary, waved as students passed in their cars during a parade at the school May 14.
“My dad wants me to tell you that you are much better teachers than he is,” one student yelled from the car.
The parade was one of the few times Farrell, who is retiring this year, has been able to see some of her students in person since the School District of Manatee County went on spring break and then transitioned to e-learning.
“It makes me sad right now retiring without the kids,” she said. “I didn’t know the last day with the kids would be my last day with kids ever.”
Farrell has been teaching students at Gene Witt since its opening 26 years ago and before then had been at Braden River Elementary for five years. Throughout her 31 years, she’s taught second, fourth and fifth grades.
“I have been blessed by this journey,” Farrell said. “They are curious, and you can make them wonder about things they haven’t thought,” Farrell said. “I get to see so many different perspectives, and I have grown and learned so much about tolerance. Every single person is incredibly different.”
Many retiring teachers have known they would have a career in education since they were children, playing school or being inspired by their own teachers.
Elaine Bowling, an early childhood education teacher at Lakewood Ranch High School, remembers playing school in her basement growing up. Forty-one years ago her imagination became reality as she stepped through the doors of Manatee High School for her first year of teaching.
“I remember it was hot because there was no air conditioning,” Bowling said. “I wasn’t much older than my students.”
Bowling has spent the past 21 years at Lakewood Ranch helping students become teachers themselves. Saying goodbye to the seniors at the rescheduled graduation ceremony in July will be bittersweet.
“I’ll be glad to see them but sad at the same time,” she said. “I built a bond with them over the four years.”
Out of Vilma Soto’s 35 years teaching, she has spent 22 as a Spanish teacher at Carlos E. Haile Middle School. She has remained at the school for its positive environment, wonderful colleagues and, of course, the students.
She has seen students she’s taught get married and later has worked with their children.
“That is something that amazes me that God has given me all these years to see the changes in education and in my students,” Soto said.