A century of learning: Three educators retire from Crestline Elementary
At the end of the week, Crestline Elementary School will lose three longtime educators whose combined experience in the classroom totals more than a century.
Amy Robinson, Rhonda Russell and Barb Helton have taught together for decades at Hartselle’s longest standing school.
After 35 years in the classroom – with 19 of those teaching kindergarten at Crestline – Robinson said she had always wanted to be an educator.
“I never considered anything else,” she said.
It runs in the family. Robinson has several family members who were and are educators, starting with her grandparents in the 1920s and 30s. Her sister-in-law currently teaches at F.E. Burleson.
“It’s a calling, not a job,” Robinson added. “We put in many hours before and after school and during the summer. You do it because you love it.”
Inspired by her first-grade teacher, Robinson said her parents also played a role in her career in the classroom, demonstrating a good work ethic mixed with compassion. Before landing at Crestline, she taught one year at Neel Elementary, one year at Lacey’s Spring Elementary and 14 years at Falkville Elementary.
Her favorite part of her decades-long career is seeing her students’ progress – witnessing “the smile you see when they ‘get it,’ saying making an impact on the lives of her students has been the best part of her years in the classroom.
Barb Helton agrees.
The teacher of nearly 40 years said she chose education because she could make a difference.
“At that time in my life, I needed to be needed and wanted to better myself,” she said.
Before teaching environmental science at Crestline for the past eight years, Helton taught first grade at the school for 22 years and second grade at Danville Elementary School for eight years.
Helton said she has enjoyed working with her hands in the dirt in the outdoor classroom she has managed as the environmental science teacher – connecting with nature and with God.
“So many folks think doing the outdoor classroom is easy – it is easy if you don’t mind mowing, weed eating, planting crops, hatching and raising chickens, pulling weeds, and filling bird feeders, as as (teaching) lessons inside when the weather is uncooperative,” she said. “There’s a lot that teachers do on the weekends and throughout the summer that isn’t seen.”
Helton said instead of retiring, she is changing professions. She is married to Bill and they live on a cattle farm in Vinemont.
“I am changing professions from teacher to farmer,” she said. “I also plan on doing some science workshops. I’d love to do a little traveling, catch up on some reading and attend more Bible studies.”
While Helton has loved her years in the classroom, she said the career is not one for the faint of heart.
“Teachers have a very difficult job to do,” she said. “(Somedays) It’s like giving them four boards, six nails, half a hammer and telling (them) to build a house in two days.”
Still, through the struggles of the career. Helton said she has been changed by her students for the better.
“The student who most impacted me did not have an easy home life. In the chaos she was living in, you would not have known it,” she said. “She came to school with a great attitude and never expected pity. That young lady graduates this year, and I could not be prouder. She will do great things because she has risen above her situation and is a better person because of it.”
Helton said she wants her legacy to be one of love for the children.
“I want my students to know that I loved them – that they see the love and enthusiasm I have for the outdoors. I want kids to know how important it is to be connected to the land, to know native plants and to be self-sufficient when it comes to growing food,” she said.
Russell will wrap up her third decade in the classroom at the end of the week, having taught kindergarten through the fourth grade. She will bookend her time in the classroom as a kindergarten teacher – where she began.
She previously taught at an elementary school in her home state of Tennessee before a five-year stint at Falkville Elementary.
“When I started in Falkville, the very first friend I made was Amy Robinson,” she said. “We both moved to Hartselle City Schools at the same time. She landed at Crestline and I landed at Barkley Bridge. Being able to finish our careers together at Crestline has been an absolute blessing.”
Russell also shares her passion for learning and teaching with her family. Her husband Shane will retire from Hartselle Junior High School after 37 years on Friday.
“Along with my husband, I have a sister who is a retired special education instructional coordinator in Nevada and my niece is a middle school science teacher in Tennessee,” she said.
Russell said there is more than one way to help a child learn.
“I love watching the light come on when they understand a new concept,” she said. “I also love the challenge of figuring out how to teach a child that is struggling to comprehend something.”
She too has been changed by the students who have been in her classroom through the years.
The student she tutored after school who struggled with reading in the fourth grade, the student with autism that just needed things to be a little different but persevered, the kids that got themselves up in the morning and catch the bus with no one to help them – these are among the most inspiring and lifechanging, according to Russell.
“I can put several faces to each scenario. All the kids have left a mark on my heart and molded me into the person I am today,” Russell added.
She said she hopes, in turn, that she will leave a positive legacy behind her.
“I hope I made an impact on their lives. Whether it be an academic impact, an example of good character, an act of kindness that goes beyond the classroom or a spiritual impact when I shared the Christmas story or prayed for a relative,” she said.
Russell said she plans to enjoy her retirement living close to her children and grandchildren.
“We plan to have a garden and some chickens. We are looking forward to spending time with family and traveling whenever we want,” she said.
Helton will be busy on Circle H Ranch, likely rising before the sun to work in the garden or with the cows, she said.
“I will think of the teachers by dropping by with some goodies to make their day,” she said. “I hope I never forget where I came from.”
Robinson said she plans to spoil her granddaughter, get a part-time job, spend time with family and friends and travel, adding the beginning of next school year will probably be difficult.
“I will enjoy turning off my alarm, but I will miss the beginning of the year excitement,” she said.
Crestline principal Karissa Lang said Robinson, Helton and Russell are true examples what it means to be dedicated educators, adding they have had a tremendous impact on the lives of their students.
“They helped make Crestline a better place,” Lang said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to work with these three amazing women, and they will be incredibly missed. Though they are starting new adventures, they will always be part of the Crestline family.”