Retiring Loudoun schools assistant superintendent George Atwell, who began his 31-year school career as a mathematics teacher, remembers when math was called arithmetic and 5 cents was a number and not a "concept."
A Loudoun County native, Atwell received his accounting degree from the University of Maryland but after graduation was not impressed, he said, with "the corporate thing" or with accounting. Although he had interviewed with several corporations, he was still undecided about his career when he accompanied his wife-to-be, Marian, to commencement exercises at Loudoun County High School, where she taught home economics.
"I was chatting with Caleb Gibson, who was director of instruction at the time, and he said, 'If you don't have a job, how about teaching for me?' " Atwell said.
It was 1956, and requirements for hiring teachers were not as stringent as they are today; Atwell was brought on board as a math teacher immediately. Once he decided he liked teaching, he took education courses at George Washington University and his first love, he said, is his last.
"The things I liked best about teaching were the youngsters -- and their activities," he said. "Those activities made being in school fun, and school should be fun."
Atwell said he has been drama coach and a cheerleading sponsor, and has been involved with basketball, football, band and the debating team.
"When the principal asked us to do these things, we didn't know we had a choice," he said. "We just did them." One of the changes Atwell has seen is that teachers now get paid for the extra hours they work. "I think that's a good thing," he said.
Atwell will turn 55 on June 29, two days before a new law allowing full retirement for teachers at 55 takes effect. In his long career in Loudoun schools, he has seen enrollment nearly triple from less than 5,000 students in 1956 to more than 13,000 today. Kindergarten has been introduced during his tenure, and he was instrumental in establishing the middle schools programs, helping to design a curriculum and then working with the architects to build schools to fit the curriculum.
Atwell said a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree earns more than $20,000 in Loudoun County today compared to about $2,300 31 years ago -- a nearly 900 percent increase. Although salary is important, dedication is the key to good teaching, Atwell insists. "If I had a student who resisted learning, I believe that if I was dedicated enough and spent enough time with that child, I'd teach him something."
Two other qualities needed, Atwell said, are patience and "forever, hope."
But Atwell did not remain a teacher long. In 1961 he was appointed Hamilton Elementary School principal, and in 1965 he was named assistant principal at Loudoun Valley High School and principal one year later.
"It was interesting to walk into my first faculty meeting at Loudoun Valley and see teachers there who had taught me," he said. "Suddenly I was their boss." In addition, a former student, one Philip Bolen, now county administrator, was the high school's basketball coach. "I inherited Phil with the job," Atwell said with a laugh.
School Superintendent Robert Butt, who came to the county in 1969, appointed Atwell the school system's first director of business in 1970. Atwell moved to assistant superintendent for business in 1977 and became assistant superintendent for support services four years ago. In that capacity, he has been responsible for maintaining the system's 33 buildings and hundreds of acres of school grounds and playing fields, supervising all purchasing and overseeing transportation, construction, energy, textbooks and the warehouse.
He said he will stay on long enough to help train his successor, former Prince William superintendent of schools William Johnson, and then plans to get up in the morning only when he wants to and say, "These are the things I don't have to do today."
He will, however, remain active in the community, including his involvement with the Virginia Association of School Business Officials, the Leesburg Rotary, the Loudoun chapter of the American Red Cross and the Girl Scouts.
There are still many things he and his wife want to do and see, Atwell said. "When people ask me if I've lived all my life in Loudoun County, I say, 'Not yet I haven't.' "