Youth

McKinney Middle School teacher Pam Conine will retire this month after a 36-year teaching career, with 30 of those years in Yellow Springs. She’s shown here with the rock in front of Yellow Springs High School, which an anonymous artist painted in her honor.

Pam Conine retires—A lifelong learner, lifelong teacher

One of Pam Conine’s favorite sayings is that, if you find a career you love, you never have to work a day in your life. By that standard, Conine figures she’s spent almost no time in her adult life actually working.

By most standards, though, Conine has worked long and hard. This month, she retires after 36 years of teaching. Her career took place in just three locations, with the first five years in Piqua, one year in Jeffersonville, Ind., and the past 30 at McKinney Middle School in Yellow Springs.

All in all, according to Conine in a recent interview, “It’s been a great run.”

Her career has been rewarding for several reasons, she said. First, she’s very grateful to have worked in Yellow Springs, where she appreciates her talented and hard-working colleagues, and the support she felt from the school board and administrators.

The Yellow Springs board and administrators “have great faith in their teachers to do what’s best for their students,” she said. “They empower us.”

And Conine, who is 58, feels a deep connection with the young people with whom she’s spent her days.

Middle school students are “full of energy, naturally inquisitive and are coming to terms with their changing bodies and their psychological and social needs,” she said. “Their emotions are right on the surface. It’s a delightful age.”

The philosophy of a middle school — in contrast to that of a junior high — emphasizes the unique social, physical and emotional needs of pre-adolescents, and also promotes interdisciplinary and thematic coursework, according to Conine. Conine has been a strong advocate for adhering closely to that model, according to Yellow Springs High School Principal John Gudgel, who said McKinney’s success in meeting the unique needs of that age group is Conine’s legacy to the school.

“We will miss her,” he said.

Unlike most of us, Conine has always known exactly how she wanted to spend her life. In the first grade in Findlay, Ohio, she decided that she wanted to be a teacher, and she never wavered from that goal. Inspiring her were her two grandmothers, who both taught until, as was the custom of the time, they got married. She remembers her elementary school teachers as having instilled in her the love of learning.

“They created a nurturing yet challenging environment,” she said. “They opened up the world beyond Findlay, Ohio.”

And perhaps the most important influence was her parents, who always emphasized the value of books and of learning new things.

“Ours was a house of reading,” she said.

Conine came by her love of history naturally, as each summer her parents packed the kids in a trailer and took them on a month-long vacation all over the country, stopping at historical sites and landmarks. Ever since, Conine said, she’s been fascinated by history and geography. And with her father being one of the few Democrats in Hancock County, the family talked politics at the dinner table.

Conine received her bachelors in education with a social studies emphasis from Miami University and began her career in Piqua. When friends convinced her to move to Yellow Springs, she didn’t expect to land a job here, since the school system was so small. But soon after she moved, an opening in special education came up, and she was hired by former superintendent Ed McKinney.

She didn’t yet have special ed credentials, Conine said, but she soon took the four courses needed for certification. Since then, she has attained two masters degrees, one in special education from the University of Dayton and the other in literacy acquisition from the University of Colorado.

Conine took a leave to move to Colorado in order to study for her second masters. In her previous 10 years of teaching, she had become increasingly curious about how children learn to read.

“It seemed like a magical process,” she said. “I wanted to crack that code.”

She returned to Yellow Springs with a wealth of strategies for remedial reading, Conine said. Overall, she had learned that children learn in various ways, and the key is finding what works for each child. Some learn best with a whole language approach, which involves teaching reading in the context of an actual book, and others learn best through phonics, in which words are broken down by sound. Whatever the strategy, Conine first works to find the child’s interests, and to engage her or him through those interests.

It’s a philosophy stated by the school’s namesake, Arthur Morgan, who wrote that, “Until interest is aroused, nothing can be accomplished.” When Morgan Middle School moved from its previous location on East Enon Road to its current one adjacent to the high school, teachers removed the plaque with that quote from the wall and transferred it to the new location.

That move, in the late 1980s, was one of many changes that Conine has witnessed in her long career. It was a challenging time, as the school, once spread out over a large building, had to learn to function in a four-room module. For several years, the middle school students and teachers seemed to have lost their identity and pride and felt like a “step-child” to the larger high school, according to Conine, who had assumed the responsibilities of the McKinney team leader along with her teaching.

But they have worked hard to regain that pride, and Conine believes they have largely succeeded. Instrumental was the McKinney Project, an effort by teachers to offer more assistance to students in their difficult transition from elementary to middle school. In its second incarnation, the McKinney Project has become a special two-week program at the school year’s beginning during which teachers and students focus directly on the social, physical and psychological challenges faced by children entering their middle school years.

“We take the hidden agenda and put it up front,” Conine said.

Conine has also witnessed considerable changes in the teaching of special ed students. While students with learning difficulties were once isolated in a special resource room, they are now mainstreamed in regular classrooms as much as possible, with Conine going to the classrooms to offer assistance. Overall, Conine believes that mainstreaming students with special needs works the best.

“There’s a kindness and acceptance of students with differing abilities in this school,” she said. “I like to think it’s a comfortable place for students of all abilities.”

Another change Conine has witnessed is the increasing amount of paper work that teachers must complete, especially those who teach special ed. This particular change has contributed to her decision to leave, Conine said, because she has become increasingly frustrated with the time required to complete the paper work, time which is taken away from lesson planning.

Recently, Conine’s career was capped with a special honor, as she received an Outstanding Educator Award from the Ohio Department of Education. It’s the second most meaningful award she’s ever received, Conine said, with the most meaningful being voted “most humorous” in her ninth-grade class in Findlay.

Conine knows she will miss her students and co-workers, and feels some apprehension about leaving the only adult life she has known. But her love of learning will always be a big part of her life, and Conine won’t leave teaching altogether. A longtime adjunct instructor at Antioch College and Antioch University McGregor, she plans to continue that work. And if she misses the young people too much, she can always return as a volunteer or a tutor, she said. But as someone who went straight from college to her first job, Conine finds it odd but appealing to consider the notion of being able to get up in the morning and go to a yoga class or take a walk in the Glen instead of dashing off to school. She’s looking forward to giving this new life a try.

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