Teacher Judy Derbyshire thanks Madilynn Comeaux for a gift on the last day of school. (MATT BUTTON, Aegis staff / June 10, 2013)

Judy Derbyshire started teaching math at Southampton Middle School in the fall of 1973 and has been teaching there ever since.

This makes her one of 12 active Harford County Public Schools educators to have served for 40 years, and just one of two to have spent all 40 years teaching at the same school. The school itself has only been around since 1970, when it opened as Bel Air Middle School and was later renamed Southampton Middle when one of the buildings at Bel Air High was converted to a middle school.

"I'm part of the building," Derbyshire, 61, laughed, as she prepared for the end of her 40th school year last week. She's been there for three principals: Tomlin Rowe; interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan; and Glenn Jensen, the latter who taught math with her.

Derbyshire tried to transfer to high school at one point in her career, but the principal wanted her also to be a cheerleading coach.


Sign up to receive our free daily email newsletter: Bel Air Today

"I said, 'I've never been a cheerleader. Give me something else," Derbyshire laughed. "I don't look like a cheerleader."

From that point on, Derbyshire realized Southampton was where she wanted to stay, and she hasn't looked back.

"I like teaching. I like working with students, I like working with my co-workers," Derbyshire said. "It is a good environment. There are always ups and downs, and every day is unique, and I think that keeps me motivated."

She started off teaching eighth grade math, and taught everything up to gifted and talented-level classes. Today, Derbyshire teaches computer classes where students learn keyboarding and how to use Microsoft Office, among other basic programs. It wasn't a difficult transition, because she had worked with computers in learning about math and also as part of her college minor in business.

Working harder

Derbyshire was inspired to teach math when she was in seventh grade and she got the top score in her class on a math test. She wasn't allowed to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, however, because her English grades were not high enough. She was inspired to try harder through high school and into college and, as a result, she tries to challenge the students to work harder.

"If that challenge had never been put out there, I may never have reached for it," Derbyshire said. "So whenever I do something, I always want to challenge them and then give them the opportunity to reach for it."

"I've read articles that say telling a kid they don't live up to standards inspires them to work harder and do better," Derbyshire added. "They all can become something," she says, they just have to keep pushing themselves and have "the right doors open to them."

Derbyshire says the biggest change in education during her career has been the pace of teaching. Before, teachers could have more control in how fast they taught concepts.

"Now, it's everyone has to be at the same spot, same time," Derbyshire said. "Not every student learns at the same [pace]. We don't have that flexibility that we used to have."

In the computer field, Derbyshire said, it's not as noticeable of a problem, so she can emphasize the quality of student work over adherence to strict deadlines. She comes in early, stays after school on Thursdays and has make-up days to ensure students can fully understand and complete their assignments.

She hopes the students appreciate and respect her for what she does on their behalf.

"My name hasn't been on the bathroom walls for a while," she laughs. She doesn't think students are any worse or less respectful today.

"I would say 95 percent of our students are on target, respectful," Derbyshire said. "There's always that 5 percent, but that's always been true."

'Good kids'

"They're good kids," Derbyshire added. "In middle school we have to remember they come to us as children and they leave us as almost adults."

On the last day of school, June 14, her students had just as high of an opinion of their teacher.

"She's a good teacher who tries to get work in as well as have fun with her classes," seventh-grader Brianna Kopczynski said. "When we do computer projects and we understand new directions, she'll come show us what we need to do."

Madilynn Comeaus, a sixth-grader, gave Derbyshire a small chocolate cake and was surprised to learn her teacher had been around for 40 years.

"That's a really great accomplishment," Madilynn said. "I don't think I could do it for 40 years."

"She's tries to make sure we're engaged in it and having fun," she continued. "She helped me out with my typing, and I've improved a whole lot."

"She's really nice," Jay Miller, another sixth-grade student said. "If I need help she'll walk me through until I get it. She's one of my favorite teachers. She's very helpful, kind and big-hearted."

Derbyshire plans to continue teaching for the near future, taking her career "day by day, year by year." She can retire, she said, but she enjoys teaching and likes interacting with students. She has two children, and her oldest child, her daughter, is a Doctor of Pharmacy and her son is still in college.

Derbyshire said budget cuts and teacher layoffs have left morale for her fellow teachers "at an all-time low." She advises her peers to redouble their efforts toward the students.

"Set your standards, make sure they're high enough for the students to reach them, and then allow them to try to reach them," she said. "They have to make the effort themselves, though. It's basically their responsibility to learn. We're here to help them; to guide them; to motivate them."