SHOWELL – It’s not unusual for first-grade teacher Toni McAleer to let her students take books from her classroom library home. After more than four decades in front of the chalkboard, she knows it’s one of those little things that helps turn her students into avid readers. That’s why it’s the way she’d like to end her 45-year teaching career.
“I hope I hear ‘Mrs. McAleer can I take a book home tonight?’’ she said this week. “I plan to say yes 18 times.”
McAleer will say goodbye to her students for the final time Friday as she retires after 40 years at Showell Elementary School.
“I just decided it was time to take a new path in life,” McAleer said.
McAleer, a Newark resident, has been a fixture at the school since it opened in 1976. She still recalls the excitement she and her peers felt as Wilda Stroh, Showell’s first principal, tasked them with opening a brand new school.
“She told us we were hand-picked to start the school,” McAleer said. “We got to build the character of the school from the beginning.”
She’s proud of the fact nearly half a century later the school has the same values it did in 1976. Respect is the rule, and McAleer tries to model an “attitude of gratitude” for her students. She says what she’ll miss about the school is its unique atmosphere.
“The heart of the school is extremely warm, inviting, loving and supportive,” she said.
That extends to the school’s parents. McAleer says she and her fellow teachers have benefited from an involved PTA since the school began. Parents have helped with Showell’s Christmas parade floats and raised money for classroom supplies.
“I’ve always felt appreciated,” McAleer said.
While that’s part of the reason she’s spent 40 years at the school, McAleer says what she’s really enjoyed about teaching is working with the students. First-graders, she pointed out, are eager to learn and very giving. Though she wears many hats in the classroom, providing her students with the foundations of several subjects, she loves the challenge.
“You always feel like you’re at the bottom of a mountain,” she said, “but you’ve climbed to the top by the end of the year. It’s very rewarding to stand at the top of the mountain.”
Teaching children to read has always been McAleer’s favorite part of her job.
Principal Diane Shorts says McAleer was teaching summer school students to read the first time she met her 14 years ago.
“Now many years later as her principal, I will have to say good-bye not only to an excellent teacher, but also a friend,” Shorts said. “Mrs. McAleer will be missed by many students, teachers, and parents for her dedication to her teaching craft, her love for reading, and willingness to do all that is necessary to make her students successful.”
McAleer says that while meeting the varying emotional needs of her students can be difficult, the children have been a constant source of enjoyment for her.
“You never feel bored,” she said. “There’s a lot of comedy and drama in a first-grade world.”
McAleer, Showell’s Teacher of the Year in 1993 and 2000, has received plenty of advice from fellow educators through the years, and something retired educator James Gatling said has always stuck with her.
“He said ‘Toni keep on smiling,’” McAleer recalled. “It’s not hard to keep smiling when you’re in first grade.”
In retirement, McAleer plans to do what she can for her community through volunteering. She’s currently the chaplain for the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary in Berlin. While looking forward to the change of pace retirement will bring, McAleer knows she’s going to miss standing at the front of the classroom every day.
“It’s been an anchor in my life,” she said. “No matter the upheaval that occurs in anyone’s life I’ve always loved the job. The unconditional love a student gives you — you’re not going to find that in the real world on a daily basis.”