By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke High English teacher Godzetta Whittington was reminiscing last Monday as she walked through the halls of the Baucom Building one final time.
She first stepped through its doors more than 30 years ago as a student teacher, and in 2000 joined the staff of Hoke High. She taught alongside many of the same educators she credits with helping her get started in the profession. Now Whittington is moving on, after leaving her mark on generations of Hoke students.
“It was hard at first when I kept on thinking about it. I prayed about it all summer long,” she said of her retirement.
While she’s not entirely done with education, planning instead to pursue other opportunities in working with youth in another state, Whittington looked back fondly on the road that brought her to teaching in Hoke County.
Whittington grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She was raised on Coney Island – yes, she said, people do really live on Coney Island. Her parents were from North Carolina, and moved the family to the state when she was in high school. She graduated from Kinston High School, where she was a member of the Anchor Club.
As a young woman, Whittington competed in the Junior Miss North Carolina contest. It was while she was competing that her sponsor encouraged her to pursue higher education at St. Andrews Presbyterian College. Whittington decided to enroll, and pursued a degree in English.
“I majored in English because I like to write,” she said.
She planned to be a writer, but people in her life saw sparks of other talents. When she got married while attending college, her mother-in-law encouraged her to consider a career in education.
“I don’t know what she saw, but she said, you would really be a good teacher,” Whittington recalled.
In the late 1980s Whittington took a job as a teacher assistant, where she helped teachers in classrooms and drove school buses. Others encouraged her to go back to school to get a degree in education. She ended up pursuing what was at the time a newly organized program from the state of North Carolina meant to help people pursue careers in teaching.
“I was the first one from my county to get the scholarship, and that was how I ended up going into teaching,” she said.
Whittington earned her teaching certificate from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She did her student teaching rotation at Hoke High School, where she met some of the teachers who would later become her coworkers. Mary Timmons, Vickie Singletary, Ann McCall and other well-known Hoke High educators were among those who helped guide her through student teaching.
Whittington recalled her time as a student teacher as “a wonderful experience.” The teachers let her sit in on their classes and worked with her to help guide her as she prepared to step in front of the classroom herself.
“That hallway was filled with teachers, I felt like they were geniuses,” Whittington said. “They were wonderful women and they were very welcoming. They took me under their wing.”
After earning her certification, Whittington and her husband worked in Scotland County, and then South Carolina for a while. They ended up returning to Hoke County in 2000. The Hoke High principal at time, Donna Kennedy, hired her to join the English department.
She spent the next 20 years teaching English-based courses, including Advanced Placement Literature and debate. Whittington also worked outside the classroom with several student groups and clubs, including the Beta Club and the Freshman Success program. She was named Teacher of the Year twice, and her fellow teachers honored her last week with a special retirement walk-through.
As an educator, she worked to encourage her students to see learning as a lifelong endeavor.
“What I tried to impress on my students is to be a lifelong learner, to learn until you die. Learning is more than just academics. You need to be able to apply these skills here to life. They’re relevant,” she said. “I tried to make my students understand even though I may be teaching you how to conjugate verbs and how to comprehend a piece of text, to find the theme or the main idea, that you should be able to apply those things to life.
“You listen to what they’re saying, you use context clues to make relationships better, learn how to express yourself. You need to communicate in work and want to communicate effectively.”
Whittington said she enjoyed her years of teaching, both working with students and collaborating with her fellow educators. Diane A. Mitchell, Timmons, Singletary and many others who all worked together in the Baucom Building came to know one another well.
“We were disciplinarians, but in that building we were able to collaborate with each other,” she said. “…We didn’t mind noise out of each other’s classes, we didn’t mind our kids working together on different projects.”
Over the years, Whittington got to witness her students’ many successes. Some would email her or come by to say hello long after they had graduated. At least one is working with a senator, and several are lawyers.
One of her students is even working at a high level in government, which she found out in a surprising way one day.
“I got this email from the Pentagon. I thought I must be in serious trouble, but it was from one of my students who just wanted to tell me thank you,” she said with a laugh.
She even saw two of her own children, Spencer Whittington and Javetta Whittington, graduate from Hoke High. She and her husband have three children, but their eldest child, Mark Whittington II, had already gone through school. However, she did face the possibility of one of the couple’s younger two ending up in her own classroom.
Her son Spencer didn’t like that idea, and went to his guidance counselor to get switched out of her class, she recalled, laughing. Her daughter did end up taking one of her classes, and said later that she took away some good skills from it, Whittington said.
Asked about the ways education has changed over the years, Whittington said that it tends to move in cycles.
“We’ll have some type of educational jargon that’s the in thing…we have all these little acronyms for things and jargon that we use, and it’s funny because it’ll all come back and be called something else,” she said.
Some changes were for the positive, but others made her sometimes question whether it fairly measured what students had learned.
“The thing about education that kind of saddens me is I think it’s moved a little bit away from what it’s really supposed to be about. We’ve become so concerned with scores and grades and grading things, until you kind of forget the child,” she said.
Her former students certainly didn’t forget her. When word of Whittington’s retirement got around, Hoke graduates flooded her with well wishes and words of thanks.
“It’s shocking how many text messages and phone calls I’ve gotten,” she said. “One student posted, ‘I think she was everybody’s favorite teacher,’ and I got so tickled.”
After leaving the classroom behind, Whittington plans to move to another state and pursue some of the ideas she formulated during her career at Hoke High. She hopes to work on finding ways to support young boys, who in particular may be at risk of falling through the cracks.
“I still have energy and I still have a lot to offer. I want to branch out,” she said.
While she’s leaving Hoke County behind, she’s also leaving generations of students who benefited from her dedication.
“You have to think outside of the box, how can it apply to my life? …I would always tell my students, don’t let your smartphone be smarter than you,” she said. “If you don’t know something, the reason it’s called a smartphone is because you can look it up…you should try to learn something new everyday.”