The longest serving teacher with the Nevada City School District reflects on her career
Every morning began with a hug.
That’s how Susan Mahaffy, longtime teacher with the Nevada City School District, started her day.
Mahaffy would look about 25 students in the eye, say “good morning” and individually offer them a hug, she said. The teacher known to many as Mrs. Stradinger and later as Mrs. Mahaffy can’t imagine being able to do that anywhere else.
She’s been pondering this sentiment as her decades-long teaching career recently came to a close.
In June, Mahaffy retired after 34 years — the longest serving teacher to work exclusively for the school district.
Mahaffy would go on to teach at Deer Creek Elementary School and Gold Run Elementary School before returning to Deer Creek again after Gold Run closed. She taught one year of fifth grade and 12 years of second grade, but mostly she taught kids in the grade she enjoyed most: kindergarten. Coincidentally, her first space for teaching — Room 7 in Deer Creek — became the same as her last.
But before delving into education, Mahaffy said she was involved in puppetry. She entered a puppetry program in a Vermont college, and was offered an unpaid internship position for “The Muppets” television show in New York, but said she couldn’t afford to do it.
After moving to the West Coast, she traveled from Seattle to California with her husband to enter a teaching credential program at Humboldt State University. Upon graduating decades ago, she moved to Nevada County and almost immediately got a job in Nevada City, she said.
“I moved here in June and the following August I was hired.”
A LIFE OF PLAY
What influenced Mahaffy to involve herself in education was the ability to work with kids, she said, because then she could explore a world of silliness and play.
“Kids’ innocence, their joy, they remind you of what’s important and what’s not,” she said. “Play is so important for young people. Play is important for adults, and I think adults forget that.”
Starting out, Mahaffy said she was naive, believing that teaching implied a one-way medium of presenting information. As time passed, she found that listening to her students was equally as important, and that the more she did, the more receptive they were to her.
“They all have different takes on things and they all have gifts to give,” she said.
One of Mahaffy’s main objections to elementary school education is the trend toward teaching to the test in exchange for teaching to the totality of an individual. This, she said, is worse the higher up the ladder of elementary education one goes, and is partly why she enjoys kindergarten.
“I loved (teaching) second grade,” she said, “but I really did not like second graders being made to take standardized tests.”
Mahaffy’s colleague, veteran first-grade teacher at Deer Creek John Carr, agreed. There’s a pendulum swing toward making even kindergarten more academic, he said, when it should prioritize social and emotional learning.
Carr acknowledged this is not so much a problem in the Nevada City School District.
“It’s better for (kids) to be chomping at the bit to learn,” said Carr, instead of being forced to read in kindergarten before they are ready. Mahaffy’s husband, David Alkire, summarized their shared perspective.
“Children can only learn when they are ready,” he wrote in an email, “and force feeding academics to kindergartners generates unnecessary disappointment and failure to keep up.”
Instead, Mahaffy believed it important to engage in play, doing puppet shows, singing songs and dressing up as The Cat in the Hat on Dr. Seuss’ birthday.
“As an adult,” she said, “it gave me a venue to be a little kid again in a lot of ways. And that’s a gift that’s one of the things I’m going to miss the most.”
Mahaffy taught and mentored about 900 students, according to Alkire’s estimations.
“She can’t seem to go anywhere without running into, and being hugged by, students, former students, parents and grandparents,” he said.
And although it may be understood in these personal relationships, her work — and the work of teachers, moreover — frequently goes unrecognized, said Mahaffy.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is,” she said, “because you’re a nurse, a psychologist, a family therapist” all in one.
CONNECTING TO LEARN
The most meaningful part of Mahaffy’s work was building connections. The classroom, she said, became like a family, which enabled learning.
“If you can spark something in them that ignites them and interests them and makes them feel confident that they’re valued — absolutely, that can inspire them for their whole school career,” she said.
Possibly because of these relationships, Mahaffy has been invited to “Special Persons Day” at Seven Hills Middle School — an event where students honor a person that has positively affected them — about 10 times, she said.
These invitations came, likely because, as Carr noted, Mahaffy invested extended time and effort in her classroom.
“She put in long, long hours,” he said, “and really always cared about the kids’ developmental stages.”
One of Mahaffy’s proudest legacies is that many of her students — who she hugs whenever encountering them around town — have become teachers, she said.
Now retired, Mahaffy said she will take time to travel. Beyond that, she wants to engage in similar things she’s been doing for the last 36 years.
“I need to laugh, dance, sing and be silly every day.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4219.
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