Eleanor Saulsbury's entry into teaching did not bode well for a long, successful career.
When she graduated from what is now Coppin State University in 1968, she had asked to be placed at Norwood Elementary in Baltimore County because it was close to her family's home in Edgemere. She was naive, she said, not to think that the fact that she was an African-American might be an issue in an all-white school during a year when riots had left blocks in Baltimore burned and looted. Right away, a parent demanded that her child be taken out of Saulsbury's classroom.
And the work was hard. She had a small room, lots of children, and she had never taught kindergarten. She said she had to keep referring to a teaching manual on her desk. By the end of September, she came to the principal crying, saying she wanted to quit. He told her she had to stay at least until Christmas. "I had to really adjust," she said.
On Friday, the last day of school in the county and Baltimore City, she will end a 43-year teaching career at Norwood as one of the most beloved teachers in the building. She might have turned into just the stereotype of the traditional, warm, mothering kindergarten teacher, and she does pass out hugs as easily as crayons. But she is far more.
"Eleanor is a 21st-century teacher," said Patricia Goldys, principal of the Dundalk school. "She was never traditional. She was always innovative."
She didn't just go along with new technology or new trends in education when they came along; she hungered to learn everything she could. Her classroom has a white board, computer, cameras and other technology. She is as comfortable using her laptop to display a lesson as a 20-year-old might be. "The children have no idea what a chalkboard is," she said.
Saulsbury taught kindergarten and first grade, and for a short period was the school's reading teacher. She earned her master's at Morgan State University, and she embraced new developments right up into this, her last year of teaching. "She leaves a legacy here of anyone can learn," Goldys said.
The kindergarten wing of the school was named after Saulsbury two weeks ago.
Saulsbury, 66, said she has wanted to improve her lessons every year. Every class was different, so she always made adjustments or tried new ideas. She was never a teacher who pulled a yellowed, wrinkled piece of paper out of the folder and did exactly what she had done the year before, she said.
This year, she began co-teaching with a special-education teacher, a recent change in some schools in the county. The other teacher, Timothy Cronin, said Saulsbury helped teach him classroom management and organization skills.
"She is very different than a lot of teachers. She has got this vault of knowledge to pull from, and to get that from her was a huge help," he said.
Other parent volunteers and faculty at the school said she is known for her kindness and calm manner and for helping children long after they leave the classroom. "She is a very caring person. She loves the kids. She is always out for their best interests," said Debbie Banks, who is a paid parent volunteer.
Every year, the principal said, Saulsbury would say: "One more year, just one more year." But one day in the faculty room this school year, she said: "I have an announcement to make."
Because she had talked about it for years, at first no one believed she was retiring. But she said sometimes your body tells you it is time. She refused a retirement party that the faculty wanted to give her and asked that parents, former students, faculty and friends give to a fund for homeless children at the school. "Who does that?" said Goldys. So far, $1,400 has been donated.
On Thursday, while the fifth-graders and their parents milled around after a graduation ceremony, Saulsbury's students — some of whom are now grandparents and parents — could all be found in the building. "I have had many second-generation students, and some are reminding me 'You have my grandchild' now," Saulsbury said. "It has been a rewarding challenge watching all my students grow and learn new things."
Saulsbury is leaving teaching, but she is not leaving children. She will be running a small day care center in her home that will be very selective: She will only take the children of county teachers, because she said she wants the same schedule she has now.
She said that over the years, she has seen educational philosophies come and go, but she thinks today's teaching is better than it was when she started. Teachers spend less time standing in front of a class and more time getting children to talk and do projects together.
"Ms. Saulsbury always helps us," said 6-year-old Taylor Curbeam. "She helps everybody at the school."
Children today, Saulsbury said, are smarter and wiser, and their parents are pushing them harder.
Back in 1968, the mother who had asked that her child be taken out of Saulsbury's class didn't get her way; the principal held firm. At the end of the year, she came in and told Saulsbury she was sorry, that she didn't understand what a great teacher she would be for her child.
Saulsbury, being a kindergarten teacher, gave the woman a hug.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times