By Edie Sutterfield
Upon her retirement this spring, Rachelle Stewart is leaving not only a 31-year teaching career, but a lifelong association with Rural Special School.
The youngest of four children, Stewart is an alumnus and graduate of the school but practically grew up there, as well. Her father, Rodney Rushing, was superintendent, and her mother, Angalee, was a teacher.
“My dad was the superintendent out there so I kind of started from birth,” Stewart said. “And on the weekends, if there was a water leak, we were up there.”
After waiting until her children were old enough, Stewart’s mother, Angalee, returned to school to become a teacher. She started at Mountain View and later transferred to Rural Special, teaching for a total of 29 years.
Education seemed like an logical career choice for Stewart, but she said it was not always her plan.
“In high school it was like that is not what I wanted to do.”
She married her high school sweetheart, Terry Stewart, right after school and after working a short time at Blanchard Shirt Factory and at Fred’s, she decided to return to school.
She started at University of Central Arkansas in 1984 and completed her degree by August of ’86, taking heavy course loads and correspondence courses.
Her first year of teaching, she had only one class. As it was her first year and she was on campus only one period a day, some of the students didn’t know her. This led to a humorous incident that has been immortalized by comedian Paul Harris.
Harris had recently transferred to Rural Special, and Stewart, who was only 21, was on campus one day helping keep an eye on things during a softball game.
She went to look around the school buses and came upon Harris and another young man smoking behind a bus. The other student, who knew Stewart was a teacher, hid his cigarette. However, Harris did not recognize her and continued smoking, replying when she asked what they were doing, “Oh, we’re just having a cigarette while they’re playing ball.”
She asked if the boys were supposed to be smoking, and Harris said, “No, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
After learning Stewart was a teacher – and a visit to the school office for discipline the next day – Harris clearly remembered the incident and recounts it in his stand-up act.
After that first year, Stewart began teaching math full-time at Rural Special. For 19 years she taught seven different classes, basic math for each grade 7th-12th, as well as specialized classes like algebra and geometry.
Although it was tough at times preparing for so many different classes each day, Stewart said she liked the variety.
“I would be bored if I taught geometry all day long. It kept it interesting.”
After 19 years, Stewart was ready for a change so she obtained a master’s degree in instructional technology and transferred to Shirley School. She worked first as high school librarian and part-time in math and later spent several years teaching in the Alternative Learning Center.
According to Stewart, the Alternative Learning Center is for kids who are having a hard time adjusting in the regular classroom, either socially or academically. The 9th-12th grade students spent the day in the same classroom together, with the exception of the extracurricular activities. She had about 18 students and got to know them and work with them individually.
“It was kind of like working in a one-room schoolhouse but with technology,” she recalls.
Although it sounds like a tough assignment, Stewart found this portion of her career among the most rewarding.
“That might have been the toughest, but it felt like I was making the most difference, because we were keeping kids from dropping out of school.”
Stewart returned to a math position at Rural Special for the last three years.
She enjoyed teaching but is looking forward to retirement. She said the biggest change she saw in her 31 years has been the increased emphasis on standardized testing, which started shortly after she began teaching.
Especially in core subjects – math, English, and science – there is a great deal of work involved in preparing children for the tests, especially with having five different grades to work with.
“There was a lot of pressure. There still is.”
One thing that didn’t change much is the students.
“Kids are still kids. They’re gonna do whatever you let them get away with,” she said.
“I will miss the kids, working with the kids, and co-workers. I won’t miss grading papers, workshops, and state testing.”
Stewart and her husband will be married 35 years this July, and they have two sons and three grandchildren. Their son Dustin and wife Aubrey Ann have Rush and Davis, while son Dylan and wife Haley have Cooper.
Stewart plans to spend more time with her grandchildren, as well as being active in church and farming. She attends Antioch General Baptist Church.
“I’m gonna have more time for my church stuff, community stuff, and yard work,” she said.
While Stewart expects she might work part-time in the future, her summer is pretty full already. She will be mentoring a young girl who is entering a missionary program and plans to travel to Honduras with her in July.