Listen to the timeless wisdom of Hazel Haley

Hazel Haley taught English to more than 13,500 kids in her 66 years at Lakeland High. She retired at age 89 in 2006.

In my final act as Education editor for The Ledger in 2006, I had the great honor and good fortune of producing a special section celebrating her career. We called it “Portrait of a Lady,” which I thought made for a clever turn on Henry James. Miss Haley told me she liked it, too. It’s one of my most cherished pieces of work as a journalist.

The greatest joy of this section came in just spending time with Miss Haley. I’m a liberal arts guy. She was a liberal arts woman. I could listen to her talk all day — and did a couple of times. I tried to capture her free-flowing thoughts in a  conversational form.

Unfortunately, the full package isn’t available on The Ledger archives as a bundle, but here are a few links.

Last Call for Literature 101 with Mrs. Haley

Unfiltered with Finesses: Hazel on Life

But I’d particularly recommend reading the testimonials of Lakeland people whose lives Miss Haley touched and affected. Here is the link. These well-known local luminaries include Barney Barnett, Jean Bunch, and three generations of Sales.

This is Mr. Barnett’s:

I remember that I wrote my term paper in 1961 on the 1951 National League pennant race. While Miss Haley said it was excellent, she only gave me a C. And that’s about how I went through her class: praise at times, but generally making C’s.

She was a tough grader. Anybody who came out of her class with an A earned it.

She has the type of relationships with students that very few teachers are able to manage. And you enjoy learning in her class.

Notice the emphasis on relationships and “enjoy”. I agree completely that’s what makes Miss Haley — and other great teachers — the forces for good that they are.

Indeed, not one of these accomplished men and women said, “I loved how Miss Haley helped me reach Level 3 on the FSA. That FCAT score I got in her class really made a difference in my life.”

“That stuff that’s so important to the kids”Hazel

Now, take a look at this excerpt. This was Miss Haley, 10 years ago, talking about the state of Florida’s (and the federal government’s) standardized, homogenized, soul-killing approach to education.

Q: Does the state choose what subject matter you teach?

A: We have a prescribed course of study. They give you areas you’re supposed to cover. For instance, they tell me I’m supposed to teach a research paper.

It’s not worth the time anymore. You can buy a pamphlet at college and learn what I take three weeks to do. And that’s gotten worse and worse with the FCAT and No Child Left Behind.

All that stuff has become so demanding that there’s little time for education. That stuff has nothing to do with education. And there’s little time for that stuff that’s so important to the kids.

Again, that was 10 years ago. Has it gotten better or worse?

When Miss Haley died in 2008, the Florida House marked her death with a moment of silence. And Tallahassee “celebrated” her at various other times during her life. But it never bothered to listen to her.

In fact, it set about destroying everything Hazel Haley stood for. Florida’s modern model of education is designed to kill the unique relationship between teacher and student. Polk County, under Kathryn LeRoy, took that design and ran with it.

The fact that many teachers and students here and elsewhere manage to keep that relationship alive is a credit to the students and teachers — not the folks who make it difficult from the disconnected safety of their comfy chairs.

I can’t imagine that Hazel Haley, who taught and molded the best and brightest of Lakeland and Florida for 70 years, would last three years in the de-personalized meat grinder her admirers in Tallahassee have created. I can think of no greater indictment of what we’re doing as a county, state, or country.

This is every man

I love, love, love Miss Haley’s take on Hamlet.

“To me, the virtue is that the play is not about revenge, or avenging his father’s murder. It’s not about that at all. It’s an ideal picture of a young man who knew from the beginning what was right to do, and for five acts, he never did it. This is every man.

There’s not a child I deal with when I say, `Sweethearts, how many times during the last week have you known something was right to do, and you didn’t do it? And how many of you know why you didn’t do it?’ We don’t know, darling. This is true of all of us. This is why that play is every man.

We’d feel so much better about ourselves if we did what we knew was right to do. Knowing that, why don’t we do it? And that’s the mystery. And that’s what I think gets people enchanted with the story of Hamlet. And I bet most people who enjoy it or like the language — like I do — don’t even think about that.

But you see, Shakespeare never says, `Now, I’m giving you a little moral.’ He never moralizes. We don’t want to read that.

We just finished Chaucer, `The Canterbury Tales.’ And these 24 tales he ultimately wrote deal with moral issues because the church was so powerful at that time. But then people don’t want to be preached at. We don’t want to have a moral.

And Shakespeare doesn’t. Instead, brilliantly, he says, `This is the way it is.’ “


This makes a beautiful metaphor for today’s education policy politics, in Polk County and across the country.

Everybody knows that making corrupt, punitive measurement the North Star of public education hasn’t worked.

On the political right, they call this “Common Core.” On the political left, they call it “teaching to the test” and point to our massive national teacher shortage. The elite political “center,” which is largely responsible for the failed “education reform” of the last 20 years has gone deadly quiet. You can hear the silence. Ask them in private; and they’ll wring their hands and talk of despair. Heck, ask your incumbent School Board members in private. See what they say. In public, they routinely talk about all the things other people prevent them from doing.

Well, I don’t believe in despair and inaction. I believe in Miss Haley — and her belief in kids.

Hazel Haley was an elegant, kind, loving woman. She enriched my life enormously in just the few hours I spent with her as an adult. I doubt she would have been so crass as to openly take a side in a School Board election. But I feel pretty good about how she would have voted.

2 thoughts on “Listen to the timeless wisdom of Hazel Haley

  1. I was the safety inspector for the Polk county school board for 24 years. My job was to go into classrooms at each school and ensure that safety regulations were met. I would go into Miss Haleys room, if she had a class present she would stop, introduce me to the class and continue her lecture. If there were no students she would tell me about her teaching experience, her travel over the pond, and all about England. We had many great talks, although short, as I had a job to do. Yes, she was a great lady.

  2. This laminated article hangs in my office. I was privileged to meet Miss Hazel. She was an inspiration to my 41 year teaching career.

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