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Florida Community Honors Teacher for 69 Years of Service

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We want to take a moment this morning to mark the career of a woman who spent the equivalent of a lifetime in a single job.

Hazel Hunter Haley has been teaching high school English at Lakeland High School in Florida for nearly 70 years. She's the state's longest-serving teacher, and she's retiring at age 89.

From member station WUSF, Robin Sussingham reports.

ROBIN SUSSINGHAM reporting:

Ms. Haley is a small lady with a shock of white hair and a broad smile. Today, her second period honors English class at Lakeland High School is studying Macbeth.

(Soundbite of Ms. Hazel's English Class)

Ms. HAZEL HUNTER HALEY (English Teacher, Lakeland High School, Lakeland, Florida): Ultimately, what did he want the most? Not the crown, but what?

Unidentified Student: His wife's respect.

SUSSINGHAM: Ms. Haley has been teaching in the same classroom for 54 years. She says the world has changed tremendously, but insists that teenagers themselves have not.

Ms. HALEY: Superficially, yes. Their language has changed. Their musical tastes are changed. Their ideals have changed. But, underneath, they still have those same qualities that Adam and Eve had. I feel very strongly about that.

SUSSINGHAM: That's why they can relate so well, she says, to a play written 400 years ago. Eighteen-year-old Jenna Miller(ph) says Ms. Haley makes sure they get the connection.

Ms. JENNA MILLER: Shakespeare. I mean, who'd have thought we would relate to Shakespeare? But we do; and she has opened our eyes to a completely different world. I can relate to my parents now and say, you were there, and I'm here now, and it's the same, because we do share the same (unintelligible), and she relates it to us in a way that I never thought was possible.

SUSSINGHAM: Ms. Haley confides that this is an especially good class. Others, though, are much more passive. She says this lack of interest is the biggest change she's seen in her years of teaching high school.

Ms. HALEY: Academically, it's that they no longer are remotely interested in acquiring a body of knowledge. Today's young people - I'll learn it for the test, I'll do well on the test, and then I will flush it.

SUSSINGHAM: Real education, she says, means time for kids to think about the world and their place in it. In her class, she tries to give them that kind of time, and also to make each of her students feel loved.

Ms. HALEY: It's important that they know somebody cares about them, and I think I make that clear to the children. And if one of them's having something to deal with, I say, sweetheart, I love you; you're my child.

SUSSINGHAM: And she means it when she calls them her children. Ms. Haley never married or had a family of her own. She's taught many of her students' parents, and some of their grandparents. She has become a bona fide institution.

(Soundbite of band music)

SUSSINGHAM: So it was like old home week at a community-wide celebration in her honor recently. The band played the school's fight song, and hundreds of old-timers and community leaders turned out to pay their respects. Former football standout, Wayne Peace(ph), was one of the speakers.

Mr. WAYNE PEACE: (Unintelligible) Ms. Haley in 1979 and I told my father that she was retiring and she taught my father 50 years ago.

SUSSINGHAM: Pam Craven(ph) was also in the crowd. She was Ms. Haley's student in 1962, and came back to teach English alongside her.

Ms. PAM CRAVEN: She is that person that I think of when I'm in question about what to do or how to do something; I always think of how Ms. Hazel would do it.

SUSSINGHAM: At the event, Ms. Haley was presented with her own parking space at the high school football games, plus a lifetime ticket. She rarely misses a game and will probably continue to go, if she's not too busy: She's had three job offers already.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Sussingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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