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Beginning W.Va. teachers offer insight into their world

September 04, 2000

Beginning W.Va. teachers offer insight into their world



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - In an increasingly digital world of dot-com job opportunities and high-paid, high tech careers, some young people still find their futures where they were inspired in the past, in the classroom.

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With the start of the school year, Berkeley County school officials needed more than 100 new teachers to inspire, guide and lead the bulging population of students jamming through their doors.

Despite the much-discussed teacher shortage in the region and nationally, they were still able to find teachers who find teaching a rewarding way of life.

Why would someone growing up in the new electronic age with all its glitzy possibilities for financial reward and a prosperous lifestyles take on the less glamorous daily duty of shaping young lives?

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Three newly-minted products of the higher education system, who began their first full-time teaching jobs last week, offered a variety of answers: a love of kids; a passion for them to succeed, a desire to give something back through their work; inspiration from family members or other teachers who motivated them.

"I've always, even from a young age, loved children," said Heather Felder, 24, who began teaching three autistic children at Tomahawk Elementary School near Hedgesville. "If someone stole children out of my life, I don't know what I'd do."

"In many children's lives, there are a lack of positive role models," said Pamela Smailes, 23, who has 25 fifth graders in her charge at Potomack Intermediate near Spring Mills Road and Route 11. "I want to be a positive. I want to be the one they can come to and look up to. Like my teachers."

"I would recommend this job if you want to have a major impact on somebody's life," said Andrew Fincham, 23, who began teaching six periods of health to students at Martinsburg South Middle School. "I worked at other jobs with a lot more money during summers. But I realized that money wasn't everything."

He grew up around teachers. His mom has taught at Martinsburg High School for 40 years, his dad at Shepherd College for 37. Aunts, uncles, cousins - they're all into education, including Superintendent Manny Arvon.

Family was a big factor in his decision. But so were the summer sports camps his father ran that Fincham remembers so well from his teenage years.

"Just interacting with kids is what I like to do," he said. "Just making an impact on their lives. What I really like to see - and I guess you have to be a teacher to see it - is when you are explaining something and the light bulb goes off. They got it. That's what I really like to see. And it's not just about what you are teaching them. It can be how they are acting. Every day you see it. That bulb can go off in the hall, the lunch room - anywhere."

Fincham grew up here and never wanted to leave. A graduate of Martinsburg High, he attended Shepherd College for five years as a student-athlete to earn the right to become a teacher.

"I've been pretty focused on teaching," he said. "When I went to college, that's what I wanted to be."

So did Smailes, who took a number of classes with Fincham. She's lived in the poorer area of West Virginia and knows that many kids need all the positive reinforcement they can get.

"I know I can set an example," she said. "I think I have a good rapport with students. I enjoy being around children. I baby-sit. I work with children at church. If you see me, I usually have a kid clinging to me all the time."

She spent her early years near York, Pa. Then the family moved to Fayette County. Finally, they settled in Berkeley County, where he dad commuted into his Department of Transportation job. Her mom did a variety of jobs including some related to education. In an unusual twist, her mother decided to get into teaching about the same time as she did. They took a number of classes together. Her mother is in her second year of teaching.

Smailes said she and her education classmates never really considered any of the other kinds of job that a college degree could get them.

"From the first day we were there, it was 'we're ready to go into the classroom,'" she said. "We never went into this thinking 'I get summers off.' Those who did, left pretty rapidly You have to have passion - passion for the success of a student - to do this."

Felder has known from an early age that her passion would lead her to helping children.

"I've just known I would do something with kids," she said. "Some people would say I have a knack for it. I never considered doing anything else."

She spent most of her younger life in Clarksburg, graduating from Liberty High School, then attending Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania before finishing at Fairmont State, south of Morgantown. Her degree in elementary education comes with a specialty in helping the mentally impaired, which she will use to help teach autistic kids.

She described those children as being like the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie "Rainman."

"I'll be dealing with problems other people won't," she said. However, she relishes the challenge.

"I wouldn't change (her job) for the world," she said. "My greatest job is when I can actually see the success."

She described her job this way: "It's like taking a child to a candy store and saying, 'you can have everything you want. When I looked at working with these kids, I said 'that's what I want.'"

Smailes said she came to work here because she loves Berkeley County. But it would have been easy to confuse her love for the county with her love for her workplace when, standing in the middle of her new classroom, she said, "I'm right where I want to be. This is my home."

Said Fincham: "I believe this is what I'll be doing for quite some time. I can't picture myself doing anything else."

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