Shirley LeMay is Shrewsbury’s longest-tenured educator

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Shirley LeMay is Shrewsbury’s longest-tenured educator
Shirley LeMay will be retiring in June. (Photo/Evan Walsh)

SHREWSBURY – Shirley LeMay has been teaching for nearly four decades, but for her, it has seemed like no time at all.

After 38 years with the district, LeMay, who is tied as the district’s longest-tenured educator, is retiring in June.

A ‘crooked little path’ to SHS

Inspired by her brother — who recently retired after 30-plus years of teaching in Auburn — LeMay wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember. Her brother was doing his student teaching when she was in middle school, and LeMay gained first-hand experience in the classroom.

“I would go with him to school. On school vacation weeks, I went to his classroom with him and helped him set things up and do things. I knew for sure, at that point, that teaching is what I wanted to do. I kind of idolized my brother, and he was an excellent teacher, so I felt like I had to do really well to be like him,” LeMay told the Community Advocate from her classroom at Shrewsbury High School.

After graduating from Worcester State University, LeMay briefly worked for Worcester Public Schools. Soon after, she was hired in Shrewsbury, where she’d spend the next 38 years. For the first 25 years, LeMay taught elementary-age students at Coolidge Elementary School. While teaching, she earned her master’s in health education.

The choice to study health education instead of other more-common postgraduate degrees set in motion what LeMay calls her “crooked little path” that ended with her teaching high school students.

LeMay became an elementary school health teacher in 2011, traveling to schools throughout the district. At the same time, LeMay worked as an adaptive physical education teacher, working with the district’s special education students. LeMay loved the role, she said, but when the elementary health program was cut in 2017, it left her scrambling.

The district offered LeMay the opportunity to teach at Walter J. Paton Elementary School, but LeMay was looking for something new. LeMay’s health science background qualified her to teach family and consumer science at Shrewsbury High School, and she was asked to teach culinary arts and interior design classes.

“I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, high-schoolers! I’ve never worked with high-schoolers — they might be fresh and mopey.’ I realized that I’d had a lot of the kids when I was at Coolidge… and the only difference was they were taller. They were still the same nice, little kids I had in the past. I loved it right away. I loved the high-school level, and I wondered how I had missed this all these years,” LeMay said.

LeMay currently teaches Shrewsbury High School’s Focus on Foods, Foods of the World and Mediterranean Cuisine courses. In the classes — which are held in the school’s kitchen classrooms — students learn basic culinary techniques, creating breads, pastries, eggbased dishes and chocolate lava cake, which LeMay said was her favorite. LeMay also teaches one interior design class.

“The kids really enjoy coming to cook. They look forward to this all day. This is their one hour that they can get up, move around and work with their friends. They cook, they eat and they love it….They’re always in a great mood. And I feel great as a teacher giving them that opportunity,” she said.

In recent years, LeMay has used her background working with special-education students to add to her cooking classes. After years of petitioning the district, her Foundations of Cooking class was approved, which puts regular- and special-education students in the same kitchen.

Similar to Unified programs in other areas of the school, the special-education students feel included and gain hands-on experience, while the other students step into leadership roles, working hand-over-hand to teach others how to correctly use cookware.

“I think that [the class is] probably among my proudest accomplishments here. I love how the students can work together as peers. I worked for years, from when I first started here, to get that as a class, and it’s been wildly successful,” LeMay said.

Shirley LeMay is Shrewsbury’s longest-tenured educator
Shirley LeMay stands in her classroom. (Photo/Evan Walsh)

Mystery of the monarch

LeMay’s career is full of other highlights.

In 1991, just five years into her career, LeMay received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She was one of roughly 100 awardees — and one of only two Massachusetts recipients — to receive one of the nation’s highest honors for educators. As part of the award, LeMay spent a weekend in Washington, D.C., and met President George H.W. Bush.

There’s also the time that LeMay went on a weeklong adventure looking for butterflies. As she was teaching elementary-age students about butterflies, she realized she couldn’t answer all their questions.

So, during February vacation, LeMay joined seven Georgia-based educators and headed to the mountains of Mexico to solve what she called the “mystery of the monarch.” The trip was self-funded — and LeMay didn’t speak any Spanish — but she found the butterflies nonetheless. The school district was fully supportive of her initiative, and upon her return LeMay shared the information with students from around the district. Shrewsbury provided her with video and camera equipment to document the journey.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I still don’t have the answer about how the butterflies find their way to Mexico — that part remains a mystery — but now I can tell students exactly where they go,” LeMay said.

When convincing her husband about the merits of the trip, LeMay said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, the adventure was so fun that LeMay went back the very next year. With most of the intel-gathering completed, she left the cameras behind for the second hike.

Her love for educating students was also strengthened in her darker moments.

For instance, LeMay described that when her mother died, one of her students — who lost their mother earlier in life — helped her through the tragedy.

“When I came back from [bereavement], she asked if she could stay in for recess. She held my hand and she talked me through it. I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful.’ This little third-grader is consoling me and guiding me about how to go on without your mom. I realized then that my students are such a big part of my life. They’ve molded me. They’ve helped me become a better mother,” she said.

And although she taught for decades, she said she was excited to teach every day. LeMay didn’t know she was the longest-tenured educator until the weekend prior to speaking to the Community Advocate. She didn’t believe it at first.

“I wrote back and I said ‘No, that can’t be true. You must be mistaken.’ Out of all the teachers in this entire district, I can’t have been here the longest. But it’s true,” she said.

LeMay has taught thousands of students over her 38-year career, but as she reflected on her impending retirement after the school year in June, she continually repeated one phrase: “I’m just so grateful.” The veteran educator takes time every day to remember how lucky she is.

“I have had a great career here. I’ve had so many super opportunities… [Shrewsbury] didn’t have to give me [these] opportunities. When they cut the health program, it would’ve been very easy for them to send me back to elementary school, but they gave me the chance to try this. That was such an honor — that they trusted me to learn as I go,” she said. “I feel like Shrewsbury has been really good to me and given me good experiences.”

When asked if she had any regrets over her long career, LeMay confidently answered.

“Absolutely not. None.”

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