Donna Shannon doesn't quite know what she'll do next fall.
Every autumn since she was 5 years old, Shannon, who will turn 72 next week, has headed off to school.
For 53 of those falls she was the teacher — the first five of them with the Ralston Public Schools and the past 45 with the Elkhorn Public Schools, where she is the district's longest-serving employee.
And, no, those numbers don't add up. Technically, Shannon is credited with 50.4 years as a teacher because of time she had to take off to have her children, plus time to finish her degree. The difference reflects just a few of the changes Shannon has seen over the course of her career.
In the 1960s, few employers offered maternity leave. Many still required pregnant women to resign. Shannon got leave with only two of her three children, including her third, born after she started with Elkhorn in the fall of 1967.
Other signs of the times:
» Shannon started teaching with a two-year certificate from Peru State College. Tuition for up to 17 credits was $60, and room and board cost $200 a semester. (Today, on-campus classes run $140 a credit hour.) She later took a semester off to complete her bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
» Her salary was $3,300 a year when she started at Ralston and $5,100 her first year in Elkhorn.
» When she went to work in Elkhorn, it was a rural town and the district had two school buildings. Today, the community is a burgeoning Omaha suburb and the district has grown to a dozen schools, with three more set to open over the next two years.
Her own building, Hillrise Elementary, which she helped open in 1979, filled beyond its intended capacity as families moved west, then shrank back to a more typical enrollment as the district built new schools.
“I've watched it grow,” she said. “It's been interesting to watch. The citizens of Elkhorn have been so supportive. They've always been good about keeping our class sizes down so we can do a good job.”
Shannon now teaches fourth grade and heads the school's safety patrol, walkie-talkie in hand. But she has taught grades 2 through 6.
“That's what's kept me focused,” she said. “I think every teacher should have to move around. After so many years, you get too comfortable. You have to go back and do some more research, do some more thinking.”
Shannon said she doesn't know whether children have changed in the years she's been teaching. But society certainly has, and so has the way adults deal with kids.
Technology has made some things easier, she said. She's adapted to it and uses it when needed. But some people rely on it too much, she said.
She's also seen teaching techniques come and go. “I take the pieces that I already know work for me and put it in ways I know can work,” she said.
In the classroom, Shannon takes a no-nonsense approach, tempered with humor and spiced with practical wisdom. When a boy told her he didn't think he was going to finish reading his book, she told him to take it home and try. “Remember, it doesn't hurt to try,” she said.
On a recent day, she tested students on key spelling words. After reading the words, she used each in a sentence.
Then came “because.” Shannon said, “Mrs. Shannon's least favorite word is 'because.'”
Later, she explained that most children who use “because” in a sentence wind up writing a clause rather than a full sentence. And “because,” she said, “is just an excuse.”
Such lessons stick. Kaitlyn Habrock, now a freshman, recently wrote her former teacher that she still thinks about Shannon when writing papers, wondering what the teacher would think of her word choices. She still erases the word “because.”
Habrock also wrote that she appreciated the fact that Shannon was always willing to help and was a “straight shooter.”
“You really are the best teacher of all time,” she wrote.
Shannon said she lays out her expectations in the “pep talk” she gives at the start of each school year. She helps students set goals — academic and personal.
“Just getting them to see you need to achieve these things,” she said. “I love the look on their faces: I got it all. There is a satisfaction to achieving a goal.”
Mike Peterson, president of the Elkhorn Public Schools Foundation, said he appreciates how Shannon has kept up as a professional.
“As high of expectations as she had for us kids, she had them for herself,” said Peterson, who was in Shannon's class in 1978.
As for her own plans, Shannon is thinking about learning a small business accounting software and helping her son at his auto-detailing business. Her husband, Jack, 76, still works at J.P. Cooke in Omaha. They will have been married 52 years in June.
And, yes, she's sure she'll miss going to school in the fall. But there's still a math assessment to give next week, a few more rounds of “high-fives” as students file out at the end of the day. And packing, lots of packing, including the shelves full of stuffed animals, most brought by her students over the years.
“It's been an interesting ride,” she said.
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