The retired elementary school teacher taught a total of 30 years in Cleveland city schools, not including one year at a private school when she first started teaching in 1969.
To this day Sheely will get phone calls and public greetings from former students who were so touched by her care and concern, kindness and conviction as well as her fairness and firmness that it impacted their lives as adults.
One of her students who is an EMT in Bradley County describes Sheely as his “favorite teacher, and the best teacher of all time.” Not only was she a champion of the underdog and underprivileged, Sheely was known for her ability to make all of her students feel special and appreciated in her three decades of teaching.
“My career started at Cleveland Day School in 1969,” said Sheely. “Then I went to Arnold for about 10 years and I taught sixth grade. Then I went to E.L. Ross and taught fifth grade for 10 years and fourth grade for 10 years.”
Sheely also taught a year in eighth grade. Explaining her earliest memories of wanting to be a teacher, Sheely said, “When I was a child my favorite game was called ‘Go To The Head of The Class.’ My cousin Sharon and I always played the game. But I always won because I knew all the answers.
“But the real beginning of my career was when I was about 10 years old and I was standing in church. The preacher said if you get really, really quiet you’ll hear God tell you what to do. So I stood there very quietly. Believe it or not but I heard a voice. I heard a little whisper in my ear. All it said was, ‘You will teach.’”
Sheely went through high school and college with that one goal in mind, adding, “I never thought about anything else.”
After graduating from Bradley High School and Middle Tennessee State University, Sheely said she initially started teaching at a private school because it paid $50 more a month than Cleveland City Schools and Bradley County Schools wanted her to teach first and second grade, which was not her first choice.
But money was not the determining factor as to where Sheely would work or make her lasting impression.
“I always wanted to teach sixth grade,” she admits. “The kids are at a wonderful age. They’re mature, willing to learn and — at that time when I taught school — they were obedient. I had a lot of fun.”
Part of what made Sheely so special may have been her upbringing and sense of responsibility since she was the oldest of two children.
“As the oldest I was instructed to take care of my sister,” Sheely said. “My parents always told me, ‘You must set the example.’ So I always tried to do what’s right.”
That sense of accountability and exemplary conduct at such a young age served Sheely well as an educator of impressionable adolescents who needed guidance in their behavior as well as a good education. Sheely was not one to tolerate the intimidation of the weak.
“Bullying is hard to detect because sometimes bullying is done surreptitiously and you don’t realize it’s happening,” she admits. “When it’s overt you cannot help but see it and try to figure out how to handle it.”
Since bullying can inflict physical harm, emotional distress and social embarrassment or humiliation, Sheely said she was alert and quick to handle any incidents she was aware of with her students, even lecturing the entire class about the cruelty of intimidation. Her interventions met with success.
But Sheely sees the ongoing problem in both elementary and high schools as a complex issue that deserves increased vigilance by school staff. Experts suggest there may be too few supervising adults in unstructured settings where bullying is likely to occur, such as gym class, the lunch room and playgrounds.
Another problem is that supervising adults may not be trained to intervene early and assertively whenever they see questionable behavior between children. According to Sheely, this puts the pressure back on the victims of bullying.
“The weaker one has to stand up sometimes, but in elementary school we’re not allowed to hit back,” she explains. “If a bully is bullying another child they’re supposed to come and talk to the authorities and let the authorities take care of it.
“Those children are counseled repeatedly. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sad to say, but sometimes there’s not much you can do because some of the bullying you’re just not aware of. They’re sneaky about it.”
Addressing a fundamental flaw in the academic approach to bullying, Sheely said, “It seems to me that children who have that kind of aggressive behavior are easily identified when they are young and the educational system waits too long to address that problem.
“They wait until they’re in high school and they send them to alternative schools. But some of those children that are so aggressive and have such problems need to be in smaller groups and have a lot of individual attention and a lot of counseling.
They’re put in too large a group in the classroom and there are too many children they can affect. Some are even identified in kindergarten.”
According to Sheely, who recently attended a Retired Teachers meeting, many school principals are not as available as they used to be, which presents another school problem.
“They’re out in the building evaluating teachers for hours and hours on end and don’t have time to deal with a lot of the situations in a classroom,” she said. “Principals are also pulled out of their offices to go to meetings. A lot of times when you really need a principal — they’re not there.”
When asked how would she grade the eight principals she worked with during her three decades in the public education system, Sheely prefaced her comment by stating she felt all the principals “really, really tried,” but admitted, “Some would get A’s but some were not so good.”
“The A principals were the ones who supported the teachers and made the time to address problems that rose in the classroom,” she said. “They didn’t turn discipline problems over to counselors or to teachers to deal with when they don’t have time — not when you have 27 kids in your classroom.”
Sheely said she has “great sympathy” for the teachers coming out of the teaching profession and she appreciates how hard it is on everyone in the education system, but at the end of the day it should be about the students, something she never forgot.
“At the end of the school year I talked about two things,” said Sheely, who is 63. “One is, they have to come to me if they see me out in public and say, ‘Hello, Mrs. Sheely. Do you remember me? My name is so-and-so. Because I won’t remember them, since they were little and I wouldn’t have seen them for a long time.
“The other thing I told them was: Of all the things I ever taught them — the most important thing is that I believe in God and I want them to believe in Him too.”
For parents and students who know her, more than a few of them have thanked God for teachers like Theresa Jane Sheely, a teacher who represented class within the school system, and will always be held in high esteem on their honor roll.
Married 36 years, Sheely has one son, David, and three stepchildren, Brian, Kim and Teresa.