STANHOPE — By Valley Road School Superintendent Steven Hagemann's rough estimate, first-grade teacher Susan Davis has taught about 1,000 students in her 50 years at the school.
Those students have grown up and made their own impacts on society, but their roots can all be traced back to Davis. Thus, it was fitting that the retiring teacher formed new, literal roots by planting a tree at the Stanhope school's Arbor Day celebration Friday afternoon.
The ceremony for Davis, who began her teaching career in September 1972, included dozens of her former students and colleagues as well as representatives from the Sussex County Education Association and New Jersey Education Association — both organizations in which she was extremely active.
After remarks from several officials, Hagemann unveiled a granite plaque next to the newly planted tree, which thanked Davis "for 50 years of dedicated service" to the district.
The tree planting has become an annual tradition at Valley Road, with the school using the event to honor the services of a local group or organization.
This year, Davis was the logical choice for recognition. Hagemann noted that Arbor Day is meant to represent hope for a healthier environment in the future — the same thing Davis tried to accomplish as a teacher.
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"Her greatest impact is still yet to come," Hagemann said. "She has contributed so greatly to developing our young learners into leaders, innovators and the pioneers of tomorrow. Her current and former students will be contributing to our society long after Mrs. Davis' official retirement, expanding her impact and legacy on this community and beyond."
Other speakers at Friday's ceremony praised Davis for her dedication to teaching, which often included multiple generations of families throughout her half-century at Valley Road.
"We used to joke years ago that, if all she had to work with was a J.C. Penney catalog, she could teach kids how to read," said Stanhope Council President Diana Kuncken, whose two sons were taught by Davis and are now adults with children of their own.
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Outside of her classroom duties, Davis was a fierce advocate for students and made sure everyone received a proper education. NJEA secretary-treasurer Petal Robertson called her a "powerhouse," remembering how quickly she learned of her tenacity after they first met.
"I said, 'She's sweet, but she's a piece of work,'" Robertson said with a laugh. "On behalf of the NJEA, I thank you for being 50 years of the piece of work that has built a strong part of Sussex County."
Davis referenced a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., whom she called her role model, about the importance of education not only in terms of intelligence, but also in building character and establishing the truth. She expressed hope that her legacy will carry on through the achievements of the children and teachers at Valley Road.
"To the students, I wish you pursue and achieve your dreams. To my colleagues, I wish you the continued strength for the pursuit of excellence for the children of Stanhope," Davis said. She grinned as she added, "And for my friends and family, watch out. You're going to see more of me now."
Davis appeared visibly moved by the warm reception from the school and members of the public. Following the ceremony, she looked back on the close bonds she has formed throughout her five-decade tenure at Stanhope.
"I think that it's so telling how people in education become family. I'm not sure if that happens in every profession," Davis said. "To me, it doesn't matter if you're in a school of 100 (students) or if you're in a school of 3,000. The dedication and the professionalism is all the same."
This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Stanhope NJ teacher retiring, honored at Arbor Day event