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Love of students motivates aging school teacher

A family of her own

Posted: Tuesday, December 03, 2002

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Teach-ing high school was the last job Hazel Haley wanted. After 65 years in the classroom, she can't imagine her life without it.

''It wasn't what I wanted to do,'' she said. ''It was the only thing I could find a job doing.''

What changed her mind then is what keeps her teaching today -- the children.

''I don't have a family. These children are my family,'' said the 86-year-old Haley, who never married. ''I'm treated well by young people. They look after me.''

Haley, who was certified by the state to teach in 1937, the same year she graduated from Florida Southern College with a bachelor's degree in English, is Florida's longest-serving active teacher. With the exception of two brief teaching assignments, her entire career has been spent at the same school, Lakeland High, where she received her diploma in 1933.

She is such an institution that her name adorns the building where every day she teaches three 90-minute seniors English honors classes.

Her classroom is uniquely hers: pink area rugs cover the floor and shelves bulging with more than 4,000 books line the pale pink walls. A self-professed Anglophile, she has filled the room with all things British: framed photos of London and William Shakespeare; pictures of the royal family; the British flag; a handmade sign that says ''The Beatles.''

During her career, the school has moved, teachers and principals have come and gone, teaching styles have changed. But there are constants in the hopes and insecurities and dreams of the students she calls ''my children.''

''I've seen a million changes, but as far as young people are concerned, deep down inside they haven't changed,'' she said. ''The things that were special about them when I first started are still special.''

She has taught some of their parents and grandparents.

Despite her age, she can rarely be described as fragile. She has traveled alone to countries around the world every summer for the last 25 years, spending the most time in England.

On a recent morning, Haley, dressed in a red sweatsuit and multicolored scarf, went over elements of Shakespeare's ''Mac-Beth'' moments before a test. When she realizes she's misplaced her eyeglasses, three young men jump up and retrieve them from her desk.

A petite woman with wide blue eyes and short gray hair that has a slight curl, Haley enjoys the respect of her students. She punctuates her conversations with ''sweetheart,'' ''dear'' or ''little one.''

''I quickly recognized how she captivates her students, how much respect they have for her,'' said Principal Tom Ray, who has been at the school for a year. ''She has the senior kids eating out of her hand.''

For their part, the students say Haley's class is their favorite, mostly because they feel welcomed as soon as they walk through the door.

''You come into the class and it's comfortable. It's warm and inviting. This is like another room of her house,'' said 17-year-old Jared Fowler, whose mother was a student of Haley's.

She also counts among her students a former principal at Lakeland High, a top executive at Publix Super Markets Inc. and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, to whom she taught ninth grade geography.

In an interview shortly before his death in 1998, Chiles said even in his day students turned to Haley for advice.

''You could always share your problems with her, and she would listen and counsel you,'' he told the Lakeland newspaper, The Ledger. ''In those days, you didn't have much in the way of counselors like you have now.''

Barney Barnett, a vice chairman at Publix, helped establish a scholarship in Haley's name for Lakeland High students at Florida Southern College.

''She made some boring stuff very interesting,'' said Barnett, who took Haley's class in 1961. ''She's very dramatic. She's like an actress in class and very good at it. She commands your attention.''

Until Haley starts getting complaints that she shouldn't be teaching, or worse, that she finds it's no longer fun, she said, she will keep doing what she does.

''The very first day I'm not having a good time I will not show up the next day,'' she said. ''I'm truly blessed. ... I get to do something I love to do every day.''



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