BONITA SPRINGS — As Joan Falbey said goodbye to the last elementary class of her 42-year teaching career, a chorus of “hairy toenails” quietly sounded from around the room. Falbey often uses the humorous phrase to keep herself from crying when she’s overwhelmed with emotion.
“This will be the first time since I was four years old that I haven’t been going to school,” said a wistful Falbey, who retired this month from Three Oaks Elementary School at age 68.
Falbey’s intense blue eyes are ever-observing and her keen mind constantly processing. She possesses a rare gift of transposing classroom experience with history and current events, assimilating them into “life lessons” to share with her students.
When the children complain about practicing cursive writing, she reads the story of a boy who won honors for his beautiful writing. As children applaud his accomplishment, Falbey reveals the boy’s picture: he has no forearms or hands.
“The life lessons were inspiring to them, and it gave the classroom a common conscience,” said Falbey, who has compiled three crates full of these golden nuggets. “When children see and hear about real people meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles and stepping up to the plate to help others, they are encouraged and inspired to adopt the virtues that elevate humanity.”
Three Oaks Elementary Principal Vicki Parks has urged Falbey to write a book of inspirational stories and profound insights.
“I call her the sage,” said Parks, who first met Falbey when both were teaching at Allen Park Elementary in the 1980s. “I really think she’s brilliant. The children who have been in her room have been so fortunate. There wasn’t a moment wasted.”
Parks devised another way to ensure Falbey’s inspiration lives on at Three Oaks. She paired Falbey with a first year teacher, Kristen Courson, to form a team-teaching “dynamic duo,” combining Falbey’s sage wisdom with Courson’s fresh enthusiasm and creativity.
During what Courson described as a “magical” year, Falbey taught the new teacher to constantly keep her eyes open for life lessons and to hold close the true goal of education.
“It’s not all about the testing; it’s about the child and making sure their needs are met,” Courson said. Whether it’s mid-math lesson or while walking to the cafeteria, teachable moments spring naturally from Falbey’s well of wisdom, she adds.
“How do you thank someone for starting your career off on such a wonderful note?” Courson mused. “She’s given me the world during this fantastic year.”
Falbey didn’t always want to be a teacher, one of the few careers available to women in the early 1960s. “I will die before I ever teach school!” she recalls saying. “So many of my teachers were strict, harsh and unhappy people who rarely smiled.”
Encouraged by her father, Falbey began studying international relations and political science as part of the inaugural class at the University of South Florida. After meeting her future husband, however, she began to consider elementary education. A visit to a first grade classroom would cement the decision.
“A small boy walked quietly back to where I was sitting, looked straight into my heart with all of his hope an innocence and pressed a note into my hand: ‘I love you,’” recalled Falbey, who still fights back tears at the memory.
She began her career as a first grade teacher in Nashville, Tenn. Although those children had never been to school before, each one took a seat quietly and sat with hands folded, awaiting instruction. They had been told to listen and respect their teachers. “Nothing less would be tolerated,” Falbey noted.
After three years in Nashville, Falbey moved to Florida, teaching three years in Palm Beach County before coming to Lee County, where she taught at Tanglewood Elementary during its inaugural year. She later taught at Edison Park and Allen Park before joining Three Oaks in 1993.
“I have taught in areas where children have had advantages and areas where they did not,” said Falbey, who has taught nearly every elementary grade level. She says she has learned as much from the children as they have learned from her.
“Through all my years in teaching, I have learned that, deep down inside, we humans are all basically alike,” she said. “We all have hopes and dreams, worries and fears, struggles and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.”
When Falbey began teaching in 1964, she estimates 95 percent of children came from intact families with stay-at-home moms. As the years passed, she saw an increasing number of children in heartbreaking family situations.
“Their concepts of life are being formed by peers, movies, television and video games,” she laments. “Teachers accept all these little people into their classrooms hoping not only to educate, but to bring about positive changes in their lives. It is a monumental task.”
She calls today’s teachers “heroes,” noting the 11-hour days they routinely put in to counsel students and attempt to meet ever-changing educational standards which include a dizzying number of standardized tests and rapidly advancing technology.
Keeping up with educational trends can be overwhelming. Falbey once started feeling “obsolete” mid-career and nearly gave up teaching, tiring of navigating through the ever revolving door of “new and improved” methods.
“We all know that children thrive on consistency, yet the only thing educators seem to do consistently is change things!” she recalls saying.
That’s when Falbey applied to Three Oaks Elementary, the nation’s first Core Knowledge school. At first, she feared it was another new program. But as she studied this classical form of education, she realized it was not a prescribed method of teaching but rather a focus on critical content which allows “knowledge to build on knowledge” over the years.
She regained her enthusiasm for teaching and has never doubted her calling since. Several years ago, she was interviewed by a former student who was majoring in elementary education. The final question posed was: “If you could change anything in your life, what would it be?”
Falbey pondered how different her life may have been if she had followed her one-time dream of a career in international relations, but as she looked into the “beautiful, young face filled with hope and excitement for the future,” she found herself answering, “Nothing.”
“It was at that moment that I realized I had been living my dream all along. I was meant to be a teacher.”