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Education: The Family Business

Educators often say that teaching is in their blood

 Kristen Loschert

Educators often say that teaching is in their blood.

It simply is what they were born to do. But for individuals who grew up in families full of educators, teaching wasn’t just a calling.

 It was a way of life, and they knew early on they would pursue nothing other than the “family business.” In their families, teaching became a legacy handed down through the generations.

And as the descendents of teachers, counselors, administrators, paraprofessionals, and college professors, many felt compelled to take up the profession. For them, teaching truly is in their genes.

Take Janet Martin of Wheatland, Wyoming. In four generations, Martin’s family has produced 19 teachers whose careers have ranged from elementary to college levels.

“There was never anything I wanted to be besides a teacher,” says Martin, who taught high school math for 34 years. “It was just a natural thing. I’ve been around teachers my whole life.”

Martin’s grandparents, Lloyd Ewing and Nellie Zeigler, met at a teachers’ meeting in 1915, she says. Of their four children, three became teachers, including Martin’s mother, Sara. Sara and Roy Neeley, Martin’s parents, had six children, three of whom also became teachers.

As the oldest child, Martin was the first to continue the family tradition, but two of her sisters soon followed. Five of Martin’s cousins, two nieces, and a nephew likewise entered the teaching profession. Meanwhile, three more teachers married into the family, including Martin’s daughter-in-law.     

“For all of us teachers, it wasn’t a job most of the time. It was what we were meant to do,” explains Martin. “Just like lawyers or doctors run in families, you see what your parents or siblings do and you see that job as desirable. A lot of teaching is in you, maybe because you grow up with teachers. People do what they know.”

For Lily Huffman of Staunton, Virginia, her family’s legacy didn’t just influence her future career as a family and consumer science teacher. In many ways, it helped shape the course of education for the state of Virginia. After the Civil War, Huffman’s great grandfather, Samuel Richard Jackson, opened the only school for black children in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

After his death, her grandfather, James Edward Jackson, continued to operate the school. Her paternal grandfather, Edward Virgil Huffman, likewise believed that all children deserve an equal education, regardless of their race, Lily Huffman says. As chairman of the Orange County [Virginia] School Board, Edward Huffman ensured that schools for both white and black children received the supplies and support they needed, she says.

“I’m quite proud of the fact that I am from a long line of educators and that my grandfathers believed so strongly in education for all children,” says Huffman, who retired in 2004 after a 33-year teaching career. “I’m very proud of what they did at a time when what they were doing wasn’t very popular.” 

Huffman’s mother, Lily Wilson Jackson Huffman, likewise played a pivotal role in the education community. In the 1960s, she became one of the first teachers to pilot the kindergarten and Head Start programs in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Not surprisingly, both Huffman and her sister, Martha Wood (pictured left), followed their mother into the profession. Huffman spent most of her career teaching in Prince William County, Virginia, although she spent two years teaching in the Department of Defense Schools in Germany. Wood, meanwhile, spent nearly 30 years teaching middle school social studies in Stafford, Fairfax, and Albemarle counties and has played an active role in NEA. She is currently on the NEA-Retired Advisory Council.

“My whole life, there was nothing else I wanted to be,” says Huffman. “I think it’s the set of values instilled in us as children. The values of teaching and doing for others were just assumed.”

While Huffman always assumed she would follow her family’s path into teaching, Lois Jardine (pictured with her two daughters) of Greenfield, Massachusetts, initially rejected the notion.

“It’s really funny because when I was growing up, my parents wanted me to be a teacher. All of my teachers wanted me to be a teacher and I said it was the last thing in the world I ever wanted to be,” laughs Jardine, who ultimately spent 26 years teaching kindergarten and first grade.

In college, Jardine refused to take any education classes, even though her mother, aunt, and great aunt all had worked as elementary school teachers. Instead, Jardine majored in government and history and hoped one day to become a lawyer or member of the U.S. Foreign Service.

“But I was in love,” Jardine explains. “So instead I got married.” Jardine shelved her previous career plans and started a family, staying home to raise five children. During that period, though, she eventually had to return to work to supplement her husband’s income.

At the time, jobs in banking and teaching offered the best hours for a mother with young children, she says, so she contacted her local school board office about working as a substitute. Because of a teacher shortage, the office hired her as a full-time teacher on the spot.

“I found that I absolutely loved teaching,” she says. “I felt right at home with it. I realized I came from this line of teachers and it amazed me that I loved it.”

Jardine passed her love of teaching on to her two daughters, Sherry Hale and Amy Cotto. But she never pushed them into the field, she says.

“I always have felt that you should not impose that on your kids,” Jardine says. “When I was growing up, I felt that pressure and I rebelled, so I left it up to my kids.”

Hale, a driver’s education teacher in Greenfield, was always open to the possibility of teaching, she says. She fondly recalls walking to school with her mother once her mom started teaching and seeing her parents raise money to support the school band.

“I saw what a difference my mother made. Her life was teaching,” says Hale. “It makes me very proud. I feel this is a legacy that has been passed down through our family. It’s a legacy I hope to pass on to my own children and grandchildren some day.

“Everyone should do something to give back,” she continues, “and the teaching field allows you to do that.”

Cotto, an early childhood educator with the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services, shares her sister’s sentiments.

“In watching my mother and what she went through, I’m proud to say that I’m her daughter,” says Cotto, who works with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with special needs. “It influenced me a lot . . . my grandmother being a teacher and my aunt, too.”

Cotto adds that her daughter also is contemplating a career in special education. “It is a pretty amazing legacy that we all are very compassionate people and enjoy what we do,” she says.

Compassion for young people likewise led Lillar Barnes, a retired guidance counselor, into the schools. Barnes started her 20-year career as a business teacher, but soon discovered she had a talent for helping at-risk students. With the encouragement of her school’s principal and guidance counselors, Barnes decided to pursue school counseling as well.

“Looking at the problems children were having, not only academically but morally and socially, I thought this would be a good fit for me,” says Barnes, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We all need education to succeed in life.”

Barnes has since passed her passion for education down through two generations. Her niece, Daisy Edmundson, has worked as a teaching assistant and teacher and currently serves as a school principal. Edmundson’s sister, Deborah Shephard, followed in Barnes’ footsteps and became a guidance counselor. Barnes’ grandniece, Dawn Shephard Pope, also emulated her career and became a high school business and information technology teacher.

“I’ve been very happy and surprised as well,” Barnes says of her nieces’ career choices. “They saw the same needs that I did.”

Pope, meanwhile, says she always looked to her great aunt and mother as role models.

“For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an educator, just like them,” says Pope, who also lives and works in Raleigh. “Education and continuous learning always have been vitally important in my family. So I’ve tried to do my small share through my work in the public schools because education is the key to true freedom and perhaps lifelong happiness.” Pope has also long been active in her Association, and served as NEA Student Program Chair from 2002–04.

Nancy-Ann Feren (pictured, bottom left), a retired elementary teacher in Manchester, New Hampshire, credits her mother as her inspiration for pursuing a career in education.

She was a teacher’s apprentice long before she was old enough to embark on a career of her own.

 “My mother taught kindergarten and first grade,” says Feren. “I helped her trace patterns for her classes, corrected papers, listened to her stories. I loved helping her with it. She enjoyed teaching and she was happy with what she was doing. I looked forward to the day when I, too, would be a teacher.”

Little did Feren know that her first teaching experience would come so soon. When her school’s kindergarten teacher failed to report to work, several teachers asked Feren to substitute for the day. She was in sixth grade at the time.

“I must have been 10 or 11 years old. I was a really good student and had a reputation among the teachers at the school. They knew I was a responsible person,” Feren recalls. “They just asked me if I would do it and I thought nothing of it. Doesn’t every sixth-grader teach kindergarten?”

During college, her mother’s cousin helped Feren secure a summer job as a teacher’s aide in a Title I reading program, which the cousin supervised, Feren says. After she married her husband, Dick, Feren continued to work as a Title I aide and later as a substitute teacher while her two sons were young.        

Throughout her marriage, Feren knew she wanted to teach full time, but she also encouraged her husband, Dick, to enter the profession, she says. Their son David provided the final push he needed, she says.

“After Dick answered then 3-year-old David’s question, ‘Why are the lights on the dashboard green?’ he realized he really liked explaining things,” Feren recalls. “I was glad somebody had finally convinced him that it was what he should do.”

Dick considered substitute teaching since he did not yet have his teaching certificate, but the school district assigned him to replace a teacher who had resigned. A year later, Nancy-Ann accepted a full-time position as well. Dick ultimately spent 25 years teaching high school earth science and physics, while Nancy-Ann spent 28 years teaching fifth grade.

Their son David clearly inherited the teaching gene as well: He is a high school English teacher. He and his wife Kristen, a middle school social studies teacher, started their careers in New Hampshire, but have since moved abroad. They have taught in Egypt, Bangladesh, and currently work in the Philippines. Andrew, the Ferens’ oldest son, also married a teacher. His wife, Celeste, teaches high school French and Spanish, and both of her parents were educators as well.

Feren, who was adopted, recently connected with members of her birth family and discovered an aunt and several cousins were also teachers. Having a family full of educators provides a great support system, she says, because they understands the demands and the rewards of the profession.

“You’re able to share the ups and downs of it with each other and know the other person understands when you have to be grading papers, when you’d rather be socializing. They understand the 24-hour commitment,” she says. “We enjoyed teaching. Although it doesn’t pay great, it pays in a lot of other ways.”

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