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Retiree Jaqueline Eller reflects on 25 years of teaching and connecting

Jacqueline Eller dedicated 25 years to teaching with a strong emphasis on building connections. For 20 years, she taught in Anson County Schools. Transitioning to Union County Public Schools (UCPS), she spent five years as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, focusing on connecting with diverse students. Eller retired this year, leaving a legacy centered on the importance of human bonds.

"I had never thought about myself as an ELL teacher until the opportunity presented itself," she said. "I was initially hired for a program that was eventually phased out, so I started working with one student learning English. It was then that I realized how much of a barrier language could be, and I knew I had to find a way to break it down. "Even though I only worked with him for a short time, I observed the impact he made."

Eller is no stranger to adapting. Teaching was not initially in her career plan. She pursued criminal justice at Anson Community College, now South Piedmont Community College, with ambitions of becoming a lawyer or joining law enforcement. However, influenced by advice from a professor, she shifted gears upon entering Wingate University and explored education. Although teaching was not her first choice, she quickly developed a strong passion for it.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be good at teaching. I remember sharing that with my niece,” she said. “She reminded me of when we were younger, and I used chalk to teach her and her dolls different things. She said I had a knack for it.”

Eller still remembers her first day in a classroom vividly. It turned out quite different from what she had anticipated or learned in her studies. When assigning a writing task to her third-grade students, Eller noticed they needed to start with the basics. Without delay, she tailored her teaching strategy to meet their needs head-on.

In UCPS, everything fell into place perfectly for Eller, affirming she was on the right path with her new position. As an ELL teacher, she moved between schools, including Prospect Elementary, Waxhaw Elementary, Western Union Elementary and New Town Elementary.

"It wasn't easy. There was a learning curve. I always did my best and gave all I've got," said Eller. "I received a lot of assistance, attended training and got the licenses I needed."

After her first year, she focused solely on Benton Heights and Prospect. In her final year, she worked at New Town and Prospect. Regardless of her assignment, she approached her work with love and compassion, knowing that building lasting relationships with her students was crucial. This connection allowed her to hold them accountable and guide them toward success.

"I knew emotional support was as important as academic support for my students. I was there to teach the language, yes, but also to do whatever was necessary to support them. I wanted them to know they belonged here," she said. "The big picture was that we were a team and in it together."

Eller focused heavily on encouraging her students to speak English regularly. She believed this was critical because speaking helps students build confidence and improve their language skills. Through practicing conversations and applying vocabulary in everyday contexts, students learned grammar and pronunciation and grew more confident in expressing themselves. This approach enhanced their academic progress but also prepared them for effective communication in various real-life situations.

"Without them talking, they won't develop the language. Every year, I looked at our WIDA scores with them to see what course we needed to set so they could do well. This way, we all knew what we were working toward," she said. "I'd also speak to their other teachers to better understand their needs."

WIDA is a yearly test that checks how well ELL students can listen, read, write and speak in English. It helps teachers understand each student's language skills and plan lessons that meet their needs.

Last year at Prospect, where she spent most of her time, she talked with Principal Dr. Kim Chinnis to figure out how to help her students feel more confident speaking. Since it is a Leader in Me school, they gave students more chances to talk and interact by assigning them roles that encouraged participation.

"Principal Chinnis had my students use our call system to inform parents about the open house. Once recorded, it went to all the families. This process allowed the students time to practice and get it right," she said. "I was so proud of them. Every student I have worked with over the years has my heart."

This year, Eller shifted her focus to reading. Her students did well with speaking, and the data indicated that reading should be their next priority. She also knows not every student learns the same way or at the same pace. Even with the team mentality, she individualized as necessary.

"I remember siblings who looked so scared when they arrived. With the sister, I found that pointing, showing objects and saying the name worked well. Sometimes, I had a translator to assist so they could hear it in both languages," she said. "We also had one-on-one time when I'd use Google Translator so we could communicate. It's about educating the student and letting them get to know me while I learn about who the student is. She learned English in about a year."

Eller often reminded her students that being bilingual was a valuable skill. She wanted them to see it as an asset, not a disadvantage. She even held a lesson on the benefits of being bilingual or even trilingual.

Eller has learned many things over the years and experienced many changes that came along with it.

"Each journey is unique. For me, if my students fail, I fail. If I could offer any advice to a new teacher, it would be to always prioritize the students over the test scores," she said. "Do your best that day and with all your heart. Live in a way that allows you to lay your head down at night and rest."

What struck her the most was how her students reacted to the news of her retirement. While some joined the school staff in planning her surprise farewell party, others were visibly sad.

"I had one student call me out for leaving him, so I wrote down everything he would need to help his next teacher build trust," she said. "I remember the first time we met—he had his hood up and was very quiet. As time went on, he became more comfortable, eventually taking his hood off, sitting up straighter and engaging more."

Eller proudly added, "And he called me out in English. I taught him well."

It was the first time she realized how much she had truly mattered to them. Although the moment was bittersweet, she is excited to pursue new goals. As an avid hiker and camper, she plans to walk the Appalachian Trail in the next chapter of her life.

"I'm already training by hiking to waterfalls at least once a month. Next month, my goal is to complete an eight-mile hike," said Eller. "It goes back to connections. It's important outside of a classroom, too. I want to connect with who I am and my surroundings."