Showing Students and Colleagues He Cares Year After Year
For more pictures, go to Your Permanent Record.
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
JUNE 13, 2018 – When Bobby Stern told Whitaker PTA president Laura Neelon that he would be retiring after 46 years with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, she was taken aback.
For her, that was more than a lifetime, Neelon said.
“He has been doing this eight more years than I have been alive.”
Stern taught in first, second and third grade for many years before becoming a Curriculum Coordinator, a position now known as Instructional Facilitator. In that role at Whitaker, he helps teachers and other staff members serve students.
“The key to being successful as a teacher is the relationship you have with the kids,” Stern said. “When the kids know that you care, that’s when they are going to do what you want them to do.”
“Working with the teachers and kids, that’s what makes it fun,” Stern said.
Neelon and the others who have worked with Stern over the years are impressed with his focus on students and colleagues and on his unceasing efforts to enrich and support their lives.
“He is so great to work with,” said Neelon, who has been volunteering at Whitaker ever since her daughter Lucy, who now is the seventh grade, started there.
This year, she had two daughters at Whitaker. Evelyn was in kindergarten, and Alice, who was in fifth grade, worked with Stern as the secretary for the Student Council.
Alice said that he likes that he really listens to you when you talk to him.
“He cares about what other people think,” Alice said.
As fourth-grader Tommy Elrod, who is the vice president of the Student Council, was heading out for the day, he stopped for a minute to talk about Stern.
“He is very connected to all the students at Whitaker,” Tommy said. “He is always talking to the students.”
Tommy said that he is sorry that Mr. Stern won’t be around next year – Tommy’s last at Whitaker.
Neelon is one of a number of people who noted Stern’s gift for knowing the names not only of current students but also for recognizing and remembering the names of former students he sees years later.
People also talk about how Stern takes on one project after another to assist colleagues and students. For example, Angela Reed, the physical education/health teacher at Whitaker, said that, year after year, he has created CD’s with the songs she and others wanted for events.
He has made certificates for students to acknowledge their achievements. He has created picture collages using photographs he took. He went to students’ performances out in the community. He sent notes to students when they were recognized for doing something special.
The list goes on.
Stern was willing to do many things that wouldn’t have gotten done if he hadn’t done them, Reed said. “He filled in the gaps. He is pretty amazing.”
And all of that came with a wonderful personality.
“He has a great personality,” Reed said. “The kids loves him. He is easy to talk to.”
Stern will retire at the end of the month. On June 5, the school held a retirement party after the school day ended.
Stern is known for keeping a stash of chocolates and other treats for students and colleagues, and, as they were getting ready for the party, Principal Sharon Creasy was putting out cups filled with nuts and Chex mix topped with M&M’s.
“I felt this was an appropriate snack for him,” she said.
Creasy and Stern have known each other for 20 years or so – ever since both were in charge of technology at their respective schools and would see each other at district technology meetings.
At the top of her list of what makes him special is how much he appreciates young people.
“He genuinely enjoys children,” Creasy said. “He likes spending time with them. He likes creating opportunities for them.”
The things he has done at Whitaker include organizing speech contests, organizing the Invention Convention, serving as the advisor for the Student Council, being in charge of the Safety Patrol.
It’s impossible to go out into the community with Stern without bumping into people he knows, she said, and, as others did, she mentioned his remarkable memory for former students.
“His memory is incredible,” she said.
Tom Gale, a now-retired principal, who worked with Stern when they were both at Piney Grove Elementary, was one of the guests at the retirement party. When interviewing Stern for the job, Gale said, it soon became clear how committed he was.
“I knew he was one of those teachers willing to do extra things for the school,” he said. “It is about the students, not him. He does everything he can to do what each student needs.”
And he did what he could to help the adults. In the early days of technology being integrated into schools, Gale said, he took on the task of learning more and helping others. And, when he became the curriculum coordinator at Piney Grove, Gale said, “He took care of teachers and fought for the teachers.”
“Bobby is a special educator,” he said.
Stern and his wife, Donna, have two children. Both live in Raleigh with their families. His daughter, Beth Rossen, and her husband, Stephen, along with their children – sixth-grader Alyssa and third-grader Noah – were able to make it.
Benji Stern teaches physical education at elementary school, and he and his family weren’t able to come because it was Field Day at his school.
Bobby and Donna Stern have been together since they were students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has many gifts and strengths, she said.
“I think the fact that he care so much about people is one of his biggest strengths,” Donna Stern said. “He genuinely likes people.”
Another strength is his persistence.
“He sees things through,” she said. “He will do what it takes to get everything done.”
Rossen was a teacher before becoming a mother. These days, she is active in the PTA’s at her children’s schools. Stern is a wonderful father and educator, she said.
“He is devoted. He is generous,” she said. “He has such a good heart. He was born to serve people and help.”
As people talked about all the things that Stern has done not only during the school day but also after school and on weekends – the list grew to include such things as taking Student Council officers over to one of the schools in Greensboro damaged by a tornado in April and helping students collect pajamas and books for people staying in shelters for the homeless – it soon became clear that Stern was probably not someone inclined to do nothing.
Asked about that, Rossen said, “He is never idle.”
His version of doing nothing is cross-stitching. He usually gives whatever he makes to someone as a gift. When her first-grade teacher retired, Rossen said, she gave her a cross stitch that father had made for her that she had kept over the years.
While taking care of so many other people, Rossen said, he always gave good attention to his family.
“He is pretty remarkable,” she said.
Stern, who will be 68 in January, grew up in Charlotte. His father was a principal who went on to become an area superintendent.
Knowing that he wanted to work with young people, Stern was planning to become a pediatrician when he went off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He majored in chemistry until he encountered organic chemistry.
He and organic chemistry did not get along.
So he decided to become a teacher and to earn his degree in Early Childhood Education – kindergarten through third grade. In those days, only women chose to teach those grades.
“I was the only male in Early Childhood,” he said.
The physical education classes associated with that major were held in the women’s gym, and special arrangements had to be made for him to take the class.
In a class on children’s literature that had more than 100 students, he was the only man. The teacher asked him whether he was just there to meet someone.
No need. He and his future wife were already a couple. As it happened, she was majoring in economics, a field that was almost all men in those days, and she was one of only two women who were economics majors at the time.
Stern graduated in 1972.
He knew he didn’t want to work in Charlotte where he would be known as “Jack Stern’s son.”
He applied to a number of other school systems. Every one offered him a job – something he attributes more to being the lone male applicant than to his other qualifications.
When he was offered a job teaching at Forest Park Elementary, he wanted it. When would he start? When the principal Hoyt Wisemen told him, Stern said he would need to report a few days later because he would be on his honeymoon on that day. Fine with Wiseman.
At Forest Park, he was assigned to a first- and second-grade teaching team with Ann Byerly. He attributes her gifts as a teacher for laying the foundation for what he became as an educator.
“She was just phenomenal,” Stern said.
In those days, Grace Efird, who went on to become a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, was the school system’s Director of Elementary Education. With all the elementary teachers being women, he said, she was in the habit of addressing them as “Girls” at meetings.
When he came to his first district meeting, she had him stand up. She didn’t make a big deal of him being the first male teacher. She simply introduced him and went on with the meeting.
During his years at Forest Park, Stern taught first, second and third grade and earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education at Chapel Hill in 1975.
In 1977, he became a teacher at South Fork Elementary. He went on to teach at Union Cross. During that time, he also served as an administrative intern. When it sunk in that he would rather remain in the classroom with students rather than deal with such responsibilities as buses, he stopped pursuing it. (At Whitaker, he has directed the car pick-up line every day, come rain or shine.)
After a stop at Hall-Woodward Elementary, he went to Piney Grove Elementary in 1990. In 1992, he was named Teacher of the Year for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. While at Piney Grove, he became a Curriculum Coordinator.
He stayed there at Piney Grove until coming to Whitaker 11 years ago.
Over the years, he has worked with seven principals at six schools.
Stern keeps up with many of his former students. Cheryl Wright, who is now the school system’s Summer & After-School Programs/21st Century Program Manager, was one of his students at Union Cross.
Scott Miller, who retired in 2014 after a career in law enforcement, was a student his second year at Forest Park.
He taught Kristen Wheeler, who was serving on the USS Cole when terrorists attacked it in 2000, when she was in third grade at Hall-Woodward.
For years, Stern has taken pictures – many of which end up in the yearbooks at the schools where he has worked. When something noteworthy happens to a former student, he is often able to post pictures on social media from the days when the person was in elementary school.
“I have pictures all the way back to 1972,” he said.
His life outside of school includes volunteering with a national gymnastics program for young people that he has been volunteering with since his son was young. Benji Stern grew up to become the state director for the program, and both of them have been inducted into the N.C. Men’s Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
At Temple Emanuel, Stern teaches students in grades three through seven and helps young people preparing for their bar mitzvah.
One of the reasons he has helped students with such projects in the community as Meals on Wheels is he thinks it’s valuable for them to learn about the wider world.
Does he ever wake up to a day when he doesn’t have something on his schedule?
“Very rarely,” he said.
Where does the find the time to do everything, such as sending a note to former student Allie Poovey for winning a National Horseman event?
“I just make the time,” he said. “If I am sitting down, I am usually doing something.”
So why is he retiring now?
It just seems like time. After a career that included working for Wachovia before joining BB&T, his wife is retiring in a couple of months. Other than spending more time seeing his children and their spouses and his grandchildren, he doesn’t have any immediate plans.
Should he need inspiration, he can refer to some of the suggestions from Whitaker students. For the retirement party, students in each grade had done something special. Students in one grade had drawn pictures illustrating post-retirement possibilities: working as a barista at Starbucks, playing cards, becoming a dance instructor, visiting Whitaker every day.
Stern has lots of stories about his career. They are full of such engaging details as the oscillating fans in classrooms with no air conditioning and could make intriguing blog reading for other educators. At the moment, though, he has no plans to write.
It has been a rewarding career, he said. “I have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things in these 46 years.”
His side projects in education have taken him to states such as Nebraska and Missouri. He keeps up with former students in Texas and in other states.
Does he have any advice for other educators?
When working with new teachers over the years, he has talked to them about the importance of letting go of matters over which you have no control. Sometimes, new directives or evaluation systems come down that you may not think are the best but over which you have no control.
His advice: “Get it into your head that there are some things you have absolutely no control over. Figure out the best way to get it done and do it.”
His other advice to new teachers has been to create routines and procedures to follow with the students, let the students know what they are the first day of class, and follow them every day after that. It’s also essential to be well-prepared for each class.
“I think it is important to plan what you are going to do every day,” he said.
Stern will be missed.
Leslie Smith teaches second grade at Whitaker.
“I have worked with him since he came to Whitaker 11 years ago. He has been a constant support for our entire Whitaker community. He has tirelessly participated in festivals, fun runs, book fairs, dunking booths, talent shows and other countless special events. He goes well beyond his assigned ‘job description.’”
“One of the things that has always amazed me is that he knows all of the children's names and greets them personally when the opportunity presents itself. Early in the school year he has already gotten to know the kindergarteners' names, who their siblings and cousins are and, many times, their parents and/or grandparents!”
There are many jobs Bobby Stern has done in his years at Whitaker that remain under the radar, but that have supported us in too many ways to mention. He will be missed, but I certainly wish him well on his next journey.”