Most every teacher has heard this question at some point. It changes slightly with the class being taught.
“When am I ever going to use calculus/British literature/world history/chemistry in my everyday life?”
Teachers feel like they have to justify their subjects.
Not so with Gail Shelton.
The North Surry veteran recently retired after 37 years in the Family and Consumer Sciences Department.
Once known as home economics, the department covers a wide range of life skills that people need to get through the day.
Over her time in the classroom, Shelton said she has covered such topics as “foods, nutrition, cooking, clothing, sewing, fashion, human and child development, parenting, consumer management, finances, personal appearance, health, decision-making, relationships, family, etiquette, housing, interior design, etc.”
Not all of those areas are still covered, she noted.
“Every five years the state department updates courses and course names to keep up with technology, current research and career openings,” she noted.
While cleaning out her classroom and lab over the summer, Shelton took a break last week to talk about her career.
Becoming an instructor was the most natural thing in the world for someone who grew up in a family of teachers.
“My mother, Ivylyn Martin, taught home economics at Mineral Springs High School in Winston, at Beulah High School and then at North Surry High School the first six years the school was open,” she said.
“My grandmother, Sara Sparger, was my third-grade teacher — the only teacher that ever punished me. Seven or more relatives were also teachers.”
Shelton was in Beulah Elementary School when North Surry opened.
“I can remember coming to work with my mother sometimes on workdays. … Mother would save things for me to do like staple papers. I can also remember sitting out on the porch behind second wing while mother and Sue Billings graded papers on hot days at the end of school.”
After six years, Ivylyn joined the central office as the school district’s first child nutrition director, a role she held for 19 years.
“She also visited each school as often as she could and encouraged children and teens to try all their foods,” Shelton said. “Mother was my role model, and I am very proud of her.”
Her father, Ned Martin, operated a dairy farm in the Beulah community, so she received an education in that as well.
From age 9 to 19, Shelton was an active member of 4-H. At North Surry, she took college prep courses and three years of home economics classes. She was active in FHA (Future Homemakers of America) as well as four other clubs.
After graduating in 1975, she attended Appalachian State University and nearly had her degree finished in three years. She finished her coursework and student teaching in the fall of 1978 and was ready to get right to work.
Being that it was the middle of the school year, she couldn’t find an open position in the home ec field.
However, she did find an opening at the new Gentry Middle School teaching Educable Mentally Handicapped courses for a year-and-a-half.
Her bachelor’s degree in home economics included study of child development, but she said it was still a learning experience for her as much as the students.
Being young and excited about her career, she thought she could help anyone become a good student.
“I hadn’t been around students who could try their best and still not learn,” she said. “I also learned how much a person’s feeling could be hurt and how low their self-esteem could be. My students wouldn’t even let me open our classroom door. They said, ‘We don’t want anyone to know that we’re in the dumb class.’
“The school had a silent reading period once a week. My students would come and get a book that they couldn’t even read and stare at it and turn the pages so they could fit in.”
In her brief year-and-a-half, Shelton said she found a lot of empathy and kindness for these students that later paid off.
“I think God had this all planned out for me as my daughter was born with a mental handicap and autism,” she said of Christy, born in 1985 to her and her husband, Johnny Ray Shelton, whom she married in 1980.
The same year she married, a position opened up at North Surry, so she made the jump.
It had only been five years since she was a student in those halls herself, and the rookie teacher had a young face.
On the first day this big football player came into the room, looked all around and asked when the teacher was going to show up, she recalled. Even now in her late 50s, Shelton said people often mistake her for being years younger.
It could have been awkward suddenly working with people who had recently been her instructors, but, she said, “My former teachers made it easy for me to become their colleague instead of their student.”
As a home ec teacher, she was soon given the advisor position over the FHA club she once enjoyed in school.
Along the way she also managed to earn a master’s degree from UNC Greensboro in two-and-a-half years.
After Christy was born in 1985, Shelton had a second child, Johnathan in 1990.
“When I first started teaching, foods was my favorite area, but after my children were born, parenting and child development became my favorite.”
She had been taught not to share details about her family and personal life in the classroom, but she said it was a natural thing to do when teaching child development.
“I was really excited to be the first teacher at our school to use the Baby-Think-It-Over infant simulators,” she said. “Each student is assigned an electronic baby to care for during a 48-hour period or weekend. They must decide what the baby needs each time it cries and provide the right care for as long as the baby needs it: feeding, changing diapers, burping or rocking.
“This is the closest real-life experience we can give a student to see how much time, attention and responsibility a baby requires. Students and their families usually remember the experience forever.”
There have been so many new experiences that she gave her students over the years.
After growing up in an era where many women prepared home-cooked meals, she was surprised at how many of her students had never tasted a homemade cookie before. Their cookies were either prepackaged or were baked from a ready-made cookie dough.
One of her fellow students, who is now a fellow teacher at North Surry, told Shelton that the best thing she learned in her class was how to sew, something that has come in handy over the decades with missing buttons, damaged zippers and rips.
One a club trip to Winston-Salem, she stopped at Hanes Mall so the kids could browse the stores.
One of the girls said she had never been there before. Hanes Mall? No, Winston-Salem.
It was great taking the students to new places like touring the capitol buildings in Raleigh and attending national events in other states.
Around 1996, the FHA/Home Ec club received a new name: Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.
“It is the only national club that focuses on the family just as our classes do,” she said.
“I have loved being an FCCLA advisor. It is so neat to see quiet, shy students become leaders as they hold a club office, help teach a district workshop or enter a competitive event. North Surry has attended every district and state leadership meeting in the 36 years I have taught here.”
In addition, the group has attended five national events: two in California, two in Orlando and one in Washington, D.C.
She recalled taking a group to the airport to fly to California in 2007. Three of the girls became so nervous they started to cry. She could understand because her first flight was to attend a national FCCLA meeting, too.
Two of those girls were going to show off project they had done for a competition.
Kelsey Timmons and Heather Ward did their project on working with special-needs children. They worked with the kids on simple things like learning the alphabet and counting to 10.
The teens made a display “ABC’s and 123’s” and decorated it with photos from their time with the children. They gave a speech to judges at the state level and won the gold in their category. They advanced to the state level, the furthest any of Shelton’s students went in competition.
Thinking back, she said she had another student win first place in a written test about 1983.
The state wanted to see how much students were learning in home ec classes, so a test was created to question students on a variety of subjects.
There were about 30 of the top students from each of eight districts in the competition, and North’s Melissa Moore came in first out of the 240 or so participants.
In the past few years, she had a student take first place in a state category.
Chainey Kuykendall, also a starter on the girls tennis team, won the nutri-snack event.
The student prepares a snack in front of the judges while discussing the nutritional value, explained Shelton. Chainey made healthy crepes and won over the judges.
This wouldn’t be the last time Kuykendall, class of 2013, would wow judges with her cooking.
Now a student at Johnson & Wales University, Kuykendall won first place in the sixth-annual Culinary Challenge held March 15 on the campus of Johnson & Wales.
Concord-based S&D Coffee and Tea, the largest supplier of coffee to restaurants in America, sponsored the cooking challenge.
Kuykendall won over the judges with a dish she called “Cheerful Blend of Carolina,” which included coffee-marinated beef ribs with sweet potato and congee mixture. Inside a packed auditorium, she walked away with the grand prize of $5,000.
Shelton said her husband has been asking her about retirement for a decade, but she just hasn’t been able to let go.
Eight years ago she missed just one day of class while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. That wouldn’t have been possible without the support and help of the administration and her fellow teachers, she said.
Then two years ago, she first felt that pull to retire when she learned that the school district was dropping Parenting and Child Development.
She spent months working on a portfolio of research on why this was important for students. In response, the central office allowed her and her counterparts at Surry Central and East Surry to develop a new pathway to replace Early Childhood.
Shelton was instrumental in creating a new curriculum for courses that examine teaching, education and related topics.
“I was pleased to be the first teacher in the county to get to teach two classes of Principles of Education and Training first semester this year. This course focuses on all careers in the education field — everything from teacher assistant to state superintendent.”
Then in the spring she was the first to teach the new Human Growth and Development course that covers the life cycle of humans from birth to senior citizens.
“Next year we will have our first student in Advanced Studies, the third course” in the pathway, she said. “Students will do in-depth projects with education in their area of interest and with teachers at the grade level they are planning to work with someday.”
Even though she has announced her retirement and had her going-away dinner, Shelton said she is still having trouble letting go and joked that she might just come back for another year.
The students at North Surry won’t mind a bit.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.