This is the first in a series of articles that will be running through the month of August in celebration of the beginning of the new school year. The Independent is sitting down with some retired Magoffin County teachers to help tell their stories.
In 1962 A.B. Conley was a whopping 20 years old and still in college when he started teaching at Wheelersburg Grade School, a two-room schoolhouse located on the northeastern side of Magoffin County.
“I did my student teaching at Breckinridge Training School at Morehead, but they didn’t teach me a lot about how to run a two-room school,” Conley laughed.
Without any direction at all, he showed up on that first day, took the roll – 48 students in total split between fifth through eighth grades – and then drove to the superintendent’s office to get the books.
The superintendent gave him a truckload of books for the students, a Redbird Book, which was a teacher’s record book for attendance, a water bucket and a dipper, two erasers and a box of chalk.
“I’d never seen a Redbird Book and didn’t know anything about figuring attendance,” Conley remembered. “I did my student teaching in college, but I didn’t learn how to teach, so I had to do what I thought the kids needed to learn.”
Despite feeling not very prepared, Conley had to learn quickly on the job.
“There was a boy in the back of the room that looked older than me,” Conley remembered. “At the end of the day when the room cleared out and it was just him sitting in the back I asked him why he wasn’t in high school. He said, ‘I don’t want to go to high school but I have to go to school to get a check.’ He’d been in the eighth grade for four or five years!”
On a different day the same boy, 18 years old, went out to the outdoor toilet and never came back in one day, and he finally figured out he had gone home.
“After school, I drove down to his house and talked to his dad,” Conley said. “I introduced myself and told him Raymond had slipped off and come home on me. He looked around, looked at the sky, and over there, then finally said, ‘Pour it on him.’ Raymond was big enough he would have whipped me if he ever wanted to, but that’s what’s wrong with school today. Teachers can’t discipline.”
School was in session until about 10 a.m., when the bus would come pick them up, leaving Conley roughly 15 minutes for each grade level.
“I had a lot of good students and the upper class would help the younger kids get their lessons,” Conley said. “I wanted my students to understand the assignment and how to get it, so I’d go over it and make sure they knew it.”
Conley started each class with a recap of the lesson from the previous day, then onto the next assignment.
“A textbook is about 75 percent filler and the other 25 percent is what you need to know, so I made sure they knew if I talked about it, they needed to write it down because it would be on the test,” Conley said.
“If a student did something wrong, you could paddle them,” Conley said. “But I had students almost as old as I was.”
Since Conley had majored in industrial art and agriculture at Morehead State College (later named Morehead State University), he said he had to learn a lot of the principles he was teaching along with the students.
“I didn’t know modern math, so I had to learn,” Conley said. “When I was learning math, we used units of 10, but it didn’t last long since students couldn’t get a hold of it, so it was an experience.”
To help incentivize his students to do well in the classroom, Conley said he wanted to put up a basketball goal.
“The school was on a hill above the road and it was just hills all around it, but I wanted to put up a basketball goal, so I told the boys, ‘I’ll get you a basketball goal if you dig out a flat, level place.’ They brought mattocks, shovels, wheelbarrows – you name it – and dug out a flat place right next to the school!”
The owner of Western Auto donated the basketball goal, and Conley’s dad, who owned Conley Furniture, bought the uniforms and started practicing for their scheduled games against Salyersville Grade School.
“For the first two weeks, every time someone would shoot, every one of them would try to get the ball and then they’d fight,” Conley laughed.
Come time for their first big game against SGS, which was the first time any of them had ever stepped foot in a gym.
“We got the tip, and one of our boys took the ball and scored two points for the other team,” Conley laughed. “I called for a timeout and explained it all to them, again. They’d never played on a court with two goals.”
He said the basketball team gave students some encouragement to do better.
“I’d tell them if they don’t make good grades they won’t play ball and I had no trouble with them,” Conley said. “I had a lot of good students over there.”
While he said he wasn’t prepared when he took the job, he’s still so glad e started his career there.
“That was an experience that if I hadn’t taken that school, I’d never had,” Conley said. “We didn’t even have a bathroom. We had one outdoor toilet that I made them sign in and out of.”
Conley developed his own style of teaching.
“I guess I was a pretty bad teacher,” Conley laughed. “I would teach a chapter and go over what we did the day before, and we’d go over the questions that would be on the test, then if they failed, I’d give the test again the next day. The questions wouldn’t be the same, but they better not fail tomorrow.
About 10 percent would fail, but it wasn’t long that 10 percent started studying and they’d pass it, too. That’s the way I taught. I didn’t like to give a bad grade. I wanted them to learn and I tried to do everything I could do to teach it in a way they would learn.”
At the end of his fifth year, he went to teach at a church at the head of Coon Creek, where there were no desks, until they could finish the construction of Prater Borders, where he taught math and science to the three upper grades.
“We thought we were in hog heaven,” Conley said about the upgrade of facilities. “We weren’t used to having a cafeteria or anything like that.”
Conley went on to teach at Middle Fork Elementary and the high school, was the principal of two different vocational schools, as well as an industrial coordinator in Paintsville for the state, but if you talk to him long enough, his stories always come back to Wheelersburg!
Just a couple weeks shy of his 80th birthday, Conley has been retired from teaching for 28 years, but still stays busy by being active in several civic groups, serving as the president of the Magoffin County Muzzleloaders Club, and sitting on the board for the Big Sandy Community Action Program.
As school starts back this week, Conley had this advice for students near graduating, “Go into a field that you like. Don’t do something you don’t like or you won’t last at it. Whatever you do, you must like what you do to be successful at it.”