August Inspiring Educator: Helen Brooks - An artist in the field of education
Helen Brooks has the eye and heart of an artist. She finds the beauty in everything and everyone she encounters — whether it is a vase of flowers, a mountain stream, a poem, a book or the face and heart of a child. Throughout her 30 years of teaching language arts — reading, writing, English grammar and spelling — Brooks incorporated art and love in to everything she did, refining her career in education into a fine art.
The beloved educator began teaching in Harriman in 1959 but spent most of her career “downstairs” with the seventh- and eighth-graders at South Pittsburg High School, from which she retired in 1994. Brooks is often remembered as someone who instilled a love of reading and writing in her students. She shared her love of art and painting with her students through art projects related to the language arts. As part of her extended contract activities for the Career Ladder 3 teacher certification she earned, she also provided art instruction for students after school. “I had student artwork displayed throughout the downstairs hallway and set up exhibits at the local public library as well,” said Brooks.
But as much as she loved teaching, her students and painting, the love of her life was her late husband, Sam Brooks — another very popular and highly regarded SPHS teacher and coach. The two met when they were both students at Tennessee Tech and, according to Brooks, “That was it. There was never anyone else for either of us.”
“I’m a quiet, conservative person,” says Brooks. “Sam was the outgoing ‘joiner.’ He was involved in many community organizations and was recognized for his work in high school athletics by being inducted into the TSSAA and the Greater Chattanooga Area halls of fame. And in 2004, when the new South Pittsburg High School basketball gymnasium was completed, he was honored with the renaming of the facility to the Brooks-Fuqua Gymnasium in honor of him and longtime SPHS girls’ basketball coach — and good friend — Bebe Fuqua. I was content to stay at home and take care of the family and my students, read my books and paint. There were always young people in our home then — my students, Sam’s students and our children, Holly and John, and their friends.
“Teaching was my first love. I wanted to be a teacher even before I went to Tennessee Tech. I studied hard to become a good teacher and continued to work hard to be the best teacher I could be. I didn’t want to be a lazy teacher. When I first began teaching, I thought back on the teachers who had inspired me. They were the ones who took care of me, taught me life-building skills and inspired me to be the best I could be. I wanted to do the same. I had excellent, supportive principals like Mr. L.P. Beene who gave me good direction. He told me, ‘You are the adult in the room. Discipline with respect, and remember that love comes before everything else.’ Another principal, Mr. James Warren, stressed to me that teachers needed to follow the Golden Rule to be successful.
“I controlled my classes with love. I loved my students, they loved me and they were all special to me no matter who they were or where they were from. I loved them all and never wanted to let them down. Students learn everything from their teachers — not just the subject being taught but also how to conduct themselves and how to show respect. It is so important for a teacher to show the students joy, love, kindness, gentleness and self-control — to model the kind of behavior you want in return.
“My fine young men and women are now in many walks of life — some very successful, some who have told me, ‘I could have done better.’ I never expected every student to have straight A’s and go to college, but I did expect them to be the best they could be. They didn’t all start the school year at the same level, and I didn’t expect them to end up at the same level, but I did expect each one to make progress while he or she was in my classes. I looked at each student as an individual and tried to find the special gift or talent inside. Then I tried to help each one develop that gift.
“It was hard to leave teaching. It took me about two years to get over the feeling that I had betrayed my students by leaving them. Finally, a kind, older teacher, helped me see that I just had to let it go. That God would bring another person to fill my shoes and help the children continue to grow. But it was hard to turn off their faces.
“I lost my Sam in 2018, and I miss him every day, but I know he is in a better place. I have my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to love, and I continue to paint, exhibit and sell my work at In-Town Gallery in Chattanooga. And I still keep up with many of my students. Some of them stop by and help out with little things that need doing around the house or just to visit. I love to hear of their accomplishments and how their lives have turned out. Many tell me that they have a love of art and reading because of me. And that makes me happy. I always told them to never stop learning.”