Farewell: P.E. teacher turned parapro retires after 50 years

Patricia Finley greets Parker Junior High students on a recent morning as they arrive for a new day of learning. Students start their day with a smile and friendly banter from the educator with five decades of experience. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

When Patricia Finley first retired from teaching in 2008, she wanted to keep working at Parker Junior High School, she said. So Finley made a planned transition from teaching physical education to becoming a paraprofessional.

Now she’s retiring again, after working for more than 50 years in education. Parker staff and students can still expect to see her around the hallways, however, using her walker or cane to get around.

“One little girl came up and showed me a picture of her grandmother, who was in my P.E. class. I said, ‘It’s time for me to go.’ Somebody getting old. I’ll be 74 this summer,” Finley said. “But I already asked the school, do they need me to come back as a lunch aide?”

Set on teaching from the start
Finley started her career in 1972, teaching P.E. at a junior high school in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. She excelled at sports from a young age, she said, and in seventh grade was recruited to a state track team that competed around the United States.

During her days at Omaha Central High School, she decided to become a P.E. teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation from the University of Nebraska. No dormitories existed on campus then, so Finley lived at home with her mother, a nurse whom she credits with helping her make it through college.

“I always tell kids, ‘Miss Finley had a hard time learning,’” she said. “It took me five years because I worked two jobs while I went to school. I paid my own tuition and got scholarships.”

Later, she moved to the Chicago area, where she taught in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, then worked as a specialist at Hazel Crest School District 152½. In 1980, she and the other specialists were laid off, Finley said, so she applied for a job at Parker.

“I never got an answer, so I went complaining. I went in there. So they had me in for an interview, and I got hired for part-time,” Finley said. “I was grateful, too. As a single parent, I had to make sure my daughters had what they needed.”

She has worked at Parker since then, except for a brief stint at Serena Hills Elementary School. Finley missed Parker so much, the school district let her move back, “and I want to thank them for that,” she said.

In 1999, Finley earned a master of science degree in physical education from Chicago State University. Her Parker career also saw her coach cross country, track and volleyball. Teaching P.E. for 35 years kept her healthy, she said.

“I loved it,” Finley said. “I never had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, nothing. As soon as I quit, it feels like everything is coming on.”

Work that helps students succeed
In her role as a paraprofessional at Parker, Finley works one-on-one with students who have special needs, providing them whatever assistance helps them succeed. This includes helping students read or reading to them, keeping students on task, and reminding them of assignments.

“I check to make sure they have their homework done. If something needs to be signed, I make sure they get that signed,” Finley said. “I also stay in touch with the parents. ‘We’re friends when it comes to education,’ I tell them.”

When students learned remotely during the COVID pandemic, Finley’s one-on-one work changed. She acted as a paraprofessional for an entire classroom, following students virtually to P.E., art and music classes to help keep them engaged.

Travel and learning in the future
What hasn’t changed over the years, Finley said, is her attitude of tough love for students. She showers them with kindness, she said, while also making it clear that she doesn’t tolerate insubordination or profanity. She goes to students’ sports games and donates to their teams, she said, emphasizing the power of sports to keep kids on a positive life track.

After years of working with students and parents, coordinating with colleagues, and serving up homemade gumbo and Rice Krispies treats to the staff, Parker has become her home, Finley said.

“The teachers — I consider them as family,” she said. “I try to get along with everyone. I crack jokes up in there. They tell me, ‘Finley, you come up with the darnedest stuff.’”

As she looks toward retirement, Finley said she plans to start a morning exercise routine, and take more trips to Dallas to visit her daughter and youngest grandchild. More travel is in her future, though she’s not sure of the destinations just yet.

Another retirement aspiration hints that Finley’s lifelong vocation may never leave her.

“When I really retire, I think I’m going to take foreign language classes so I can speak Spanish like my daughter,” she said. “When I work with Hispanic students, I want to be able to understand their language.”

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