10/28/13 — No substituting for this substitute

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No substituting for this substitute

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 28, 2013 1:46 PM

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Seth Mabry

Helen Pierce, 85, receives her crown proclaiming her Rosewood High School's homecoming parade grand marshal Friday night from English teacher Kelly Jones. Mrs. Pierce has been a substitute in Wayne County schools for 45 years -- much of that time in Rosewood.

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Seth Mabry

Eighty-five-year-old Rosewood High School substitute teacher and homecoming parade grand marshal Helen Pierce waves to the crowd during the school's homecoming parade on Friday.

There is no substitute for a good teacher -- but Helen Pierce certainly comes close.

The 85-year-old has been a popular substitute teacher with Wayne County Public Schools for the past 45 years and shows no signs of slowing down.

"I tell them, when you get tired of me or you think I'm not doing a sufficient job, just please tell me and I will stay home," she said. "Well, I won't stay home, but I will resign or whatever."

She has filled in for virtually every grade and every subject. But the bulk of her career has been spent in the Rosewood schools, where she is a familiar fixture for generations of families.

"A child will go home and say, 'We had Ms. Helen Pierce' and they'll say, 'You mean she's still out there?'" Mrs. Pierce said with a laugh.

Aspirations of being at the head of the class started early on, while growing up on a farm in Grantham.

"I wanted to be a teacher but I grew up in times when not many country girls got a chance to go to college," she said.

When husband Carl -- wed for 61 years before his passing six years ago -- made her a farmer's wife, she was perfectly content raising their two children, Hal, now a retired physics teacher living in Winterville, and Danny, a farm consultant whose home borders her property near Princeton.

The girlhood dream was not forgotten, just diverted. She intermittently took courses and worked with the blind, becoming a certified Braillist in 1982.

"That means you can teach it," she explained. "I taught at Wayne Community College one day a week for the whole year. But now they have got so much technology and they don't use the dots so much any more."

Education was always important to Mrs. Pierce and her husband, and she was especially proud when both her son and niece became teachers.

When her older son graduated from college in 1968, her younger one still in school, she found herself contemplating the profession again.

"I just thought, I will see if they need a substitute," she said. "I just kind of wanted to do that. They were generous enough to let me start."

The reality, though, was a bit more daunting.

"That first day, I thought, 'What do I do first?'" she said. "But then you look on the teacher's desk and you look for some lesson plans."

Mrs. Pierce is familiar with all the perceptions about substitutes.

"People say you're baby-sitting. That's not true. Because I have got to have discipline, see that they do their work. You have got to monitor the students, see that they stay on track," she said.

The diminutive soft-spoken lady is actually a commanding presence in the classroom.

"I will tell them to start with who I am -- 'Some of you may remember me from grade school but I do know the rules and I expect you all to respect me and I will respect you. I'm here to help you,'" she said. "Usually that may calm them down. I may have to talk for two or three minutes but it's worth it."

Unlike the day-here and day-there substitutes, though, most of her assignments have been long-term, often working with her favorite group of students -- those with special needs. On average, she still works two or three days a week, mainly at Rosewood Middle School.

The school's principal, Kevin Smith, praised the sought-after substitute.

"There is a level of respect for Mrs. Pierce shown by students, parents, teachers and the community that has been literally generations in the making," he said. "Mrs. Pierce has substituted in classes for our present-day students, their parents and even a good number of grandparents in her 40-plus years in the Rosewood community.

"Our students know that the worst thing that can happen to them is for a staff member to call their parents and tell them that their child was giving Miss Helen a difficult time. In my three years at Rosewood Middle, I have yet to make that call and doubt I ever will."

Dina Uzzell, seventh-grade language arts teacher at RMS, said Mrs. Pierce is not only warm and sweet, but worldly and smart.

"She is the kind of person that you just feel like you have to hug when you see her," she said. "She is just so dignified in her own way that the students seem to know that they are in the presence of someone so special."

Angie Bridgers, an instructional assistant in the exceptional children's program, first met Mrs. Pierce as a fifth-grader.

"She has been like a grandmother to me and a huge role model for my life. If I had to say one word to describe her, it would be a jewel," she said.

Kelly Jones, a ninth-grade English teacher at Rosewood High School, is also a former student.

"Not only was she a substitute for me throughout my high school career but she was a substitute for my child throughout her high school career and (Michaela) loved her as well," she said. "She has substituted for me before and I loved that. She brings wisdom and respect with her when she walks into a room."

She may not have earned a college degree and a teaching license, but Mrs. Pierce has nevertheless gone on to become a beloved and respected educator. She was recognized by the local and state Jaycees in 2006 as one of the Outstanding Senior Citizens in Wayne County, and in 2007-08 received the Rosewood Middle Community Service Award for outstanding service as an educator.

And on Friday, she served as grand marshal of the Rosewood High School homecoming parade.

"Someone said once, 'You should have gone on to be a teacher.' Then someone else said, 'Well, we need good substitutes," she said. "I have been satisfied with being a substitute rather than being a regular teacher.

"I think that's where the Lord's wanted me to be and if it hadn't been for Him, I would not be here today and able to do it with the help of students, through these many years."