Elaine Shurley sits in her office at Marshall County High School where she has taught for 22 years. Shurley will retire at the end of this school year.
Beginning a new stanza
By Charlotte Kyle
Marshall County High School teacher Elaine Shurley tried to keep her retirement under wraps, but her husband, Lynn, insisted she tell her faithful students that she would not be returning next year.
“My husband said, ‘You have got to tell the kids because they are going to hear and you don’t want them to hear from somebody else,’” Shurley said. “He kind of forced me to do it, and he was right, though, because I’d been putting it off and putting it off.”
Shurley, who has taught choir, music keyboarding, music theory and arts appreciation, has taught at MCHS for 22 years. Her interest in music began with a toy piano when she was four-years-old in South Carolina.
“I banged around on that for quite a while so my parents decided that I should have piano lessons,” she said. “They bought an old upright piano - one of those gigantic things - and spent less than $100 on it. I played on that for about five years and they thought, ‘Hmm, she must be sticking with this’ so then they bought me a baby grand.”
Shurley, 59, said everyone in high school predicted she would major in music when she went to college at Winthrop University. She, however, had other plans.
“I thought, ‘I am going to be different than everybody thinks I’m going to be,’” she said. “I said I was going to be a math major. That lasted all of about six months, and then I realized I did not want to be a math major so I ended up majoring in music.”
Shurley was hired at MCHS in June of 1990 after teaching in Alabama for eight years. During her first few years at MCHS, the program was not full-time, and Shurley would spend half of the day teaching at the high school before teaching at area elementary schools. By her fourth year, Shurley was working at the high school full-time.
“By the time I was here for five years I’d been here longer than anybody who had stayed in this position,” Shurley said. “It takes somebody who is going to stay for a while to build a program back up.”
And “build a program back up” she did. Shurley’s choirs made eight trips to Europe starting in 1994 when Jim Fern with the Kentucky Music Educators Association recommended Marshall County High School for the opportunity to represent Kentucky at a music festival in Normandy.
“It’s amazing to take kids from a small, rural area and take them to Europe,” she said. “Some of them had never been out of the state, let alone out of the country.”
Shurley said the first trip was a learning experience, and one that she considers memorable. The choir performed at the Normandy American Cemetery.
“I had a student whose grandfather went with us on the trip and he had fought in World War II,” she said. “I let the student and his grandfather lay the wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier. We had watched them do that and then we were supposed to sing the National Anthem, so I turn around and all of these guys are standing there with tears streaming down their faces. I told somebody, ‘It was probably not the prettiest we ever sang that but it was probably one of the most moving times we have ever done it.’”
Other trips included Italy and Germany, where they visited a concentration camp.
“We tried to tie into things that they knew about or they needed to know about,” Shurley said.
In addition to trips, other changes occurred during Shurley’s time. When she first began teaching at Marshall County, the choir room she now teaches in was not there. In addition to that, the auditorium had not been built. It was opened in December 1999.
“Having the auditorium built was just a big plus,” Shurley said. “We used to perform in the commons, we just had to take chairs and set up in the commons. Having a place to come in and perform has been nice after 9 years of hauling chairs back and forth.”
When drama teacher Stacey Smith started at Marshall County they began doing musicals, another proud activity for Shurley.
“We’ve accomplished quite a lot,” she said. “The idea of taking a trip with these kids, or doing the shows or having a place to perform - none of that was here when I first started. It’s been pretty amazing.”
Shurley says her students would probably describe her teaching style as “strict and intense” because she wants things done her way.
“They usually think I’m pretty hard on them while we’re doing it until after it’s finished, or they hear another interpretation of it or see another school do it,” she said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you made us do this because we don’t want to sound like that.’”
She said she hopes to teach students how to sing correctly, even if it is not necessarily what they like.
“What we do is very different from what they listen to on the radio,” Shurley said. “We don’t do a lot of pop stuff. I teach them the basics. I try to teach them the correct way to sing so they can sing for the rest of their lives without causing any damage. I don’t teach them to scream like they do on American Idol. I said, ‘You can do that if you want to but you won’t have a voice in two years. It’ll all go away. This is the right way to do it, you can sing until you’re 70.’”
Shurley said after her retirement she will focus on spending time with her granddaughter and working as Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church in Paducah. She will continue teaching, as she teaches a children’s choir, youth choir, handbell choir and adult choir.
“I’m going to enjoy only working one job instead of two, and maybe catch up on some things at my house that have just been piling up while I do all of this stuff here,” she said.
She said she’s going to miss her time at MCHS and she said she thinks her students will miss her, too.
“I’ve had a couple (of students) that I’ve had to talk to because they felt very abandoned,” she said. “I had to have a little conversation with a couple of them - ‘You’re not being abandoned, I’m sure somebody good will be hired and pick this up and go from there.’”
She is not, however, worried about how the program will continue without her.
Joked Shurley: “I’m sure somebody new is going to come in and they’ll be young and cute and the students will get all excited about that.”