Photo: Pictured above, Glencoe High School Principal Wendy Tinker stands and smiles with her students in the school’s library, where she served as librarian for several years.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
In early January, Glencoe High School welcomed Wendy Tinker as its new principal. As the school’s former librarian and assistant principal, Tinker adopts the new role at a school linked to her history and in a community dear to her heart.
A Glencoe native, Tinker’s roots are planted deep in the town she calls home. A 1984 graduate of Glencoe High School, she shares the alma mater with her mother, aunt, sisters and children. A close-knit community abounding with generations of supportive and loyal citizens, Glencoe embraces its people and possesses a sense of pride for their schools and churches. Tinker wonders whether Glencoe is any different from other communities in America, who feel that same sense of loyalty and pride about the place where they live, work and love. But she knows that despite the similarities small towns share, Glencoe holds a treasure that sets it apart, a gem that transforms Glencoe into more than just a place to live, a quality that makes Glencoe home.
“Home is where your heart is,” said Tinker. “The one thing that sets Glencoe apart is probably going to be the people. The people here are one of a kind. They love each other, they help each other, they pick us up when we fall down. We may get mad at each other, but we’re all in it for the same team—to make it better for the community. Everyone wants what is best for the community.”
Tinker wants the students at Glencoe High School and the children growing up in the town to feel the unified spirit their community nurtures. She compares Glencoe to Mayberry and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She understands the pull teenagers feel to leave Glencoe, to chase their dreams and experience everything the world offers, and she sees the value in learning new ideas, gaining new perspectives and meeting new people. But Tinker also recognizes the worth in appreciating a community that fosters friendship and family and encourages her students to respect the value that rests before their eyes.
“All roads lead home,” said Tinker. “You can go out there in that big old world, but it’s nice to come home. [Kids] are always ready to bust out of here and find something new, but at the end of the day when you get out there, you realize what you were looking for the whole time was right in front of your face.”
Growing up, Tinker’s family and education walked hand-in-hand. Her grandmother was an adult education teacher, her aunt the principal at Southside High School and her cousin a librarian. She witnessed people come up to her mother, the first Glencoe Middle School principal, time and time again, expressing their gratitude for the contributions she made to their lives. She heard them tell her mother ‘Thank you for everything you’ve ever done for me,’ and ‘I wouldn’t have made it [without you].’ Teaching, as Tinker experienced, is a service-oriented profession that impacts countless lives. She saw the lives her family members influenced, the dedication and heart they poured into their schools, the vision they saw of students reaching their full potential, the ability they held to change lives for the better. She decided to devote her life to the same mission, and as her family before her inspired others, she began to do the same.
Tinker played softball at Gadsden State Community College for two years before transferring to Jacksonville State University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary and Early Childhood. She then pursued her masters at The University of Alabama and went on to receive master certification in library science media K-12 and administration K-12.
Tinker began her career in 1989 at Stone Mountain Junior High School in Georgia teaching seventh and eighth grade earth science, then transferred to Vanderlyn Elementary School in DeKalb County, where she taught sixth graders math. After moving back to Alabama, she taught third grade at Mitchell Elementary School for two years. During this time, she noticed an advertisement for teachers to receive their media specialist certificate on a bulletin board.
Due to the shortage of media specialists among educators, before Tinker even completed her certification, two schools hired her as a librarian. Tinker traveled back and forth from Jessie Dean Smith Elementary School to Walnut Park Elementary School for three years, before becoming the full-time librarian at Walnut Park.
While at Walnut Park, Tinker discovered that Jessie Dean Smith was going to be torn down. Along with the help of a coworker, she loaded up hundreds of books in her little blue Ford Freestyle and puttered down South 11th Street, consolidating the library to Walnut Park. She worked diligently to ensure that all furniture, pictures, computers and scanners were transferred safely to Walnut Park, where she stayed for eight to nine years. In 2011, when Tinker’s daughter Sally became a freshman at Glencoe High School, so did she. Tinker accepted a librarian position and returned to the school that for her, started it all.
The shift from elementary to high school proved difficult at first, but Tinker is not an easily intimidated woman. Despite unnerving moments when Tinker felt out of her element, adjusting from Dr. Seuss, Micky Mouse and monogrammed sweaters to teenagers studying for the ACT grew less challenging overtime. She realized that regardless of the age difference or how they might grow or change, the hearts of students remain the same. Tinker understands that students, whether they are five or 15, deserve her dedication, encouragement and support.
“Really, [high school students have] the same problems, the same life, the same mindset that they had in elementary,” said Tinker. “They all need attention, it all needs to be detailed and they need to know that they’re important to me. They need to know that they matter—and they do, that’s why I’m here. We’re in the kid business.”
Perhaps the shift from elementary to high school was gentler on Tinker than the students that once viewed her as their librarian, who now call her principal. Tinker shared that in elementary school, down time is a rarity and productivity is essential. She carries this mindset into her role as principal, which creates an adjustment for the teachers and students who were comfortable in a more laid-back regime. Tinker explained that she wants her students and teachers to remain busy, to be the best they can be while they are at school, but she believes that this mentality will create a beneficial atmosphere where students and teachers both enjoy the learning environment.
“Happy teachers make happy students,” Tinker said. “If the teachers are happy, the kids are happy. If the kids are happy and they know that the teachers are giving them their best, then they’re going to try.”
As a librarian, Tinker witnessed firsthand the evolution of education’s relationship with technology. She worked on the ground floor of this significant shift, transforming card catalogs to computers, putting stickers on books to scan and automating library systems. While she found it difficult to let go of traditional methods and confessed that her card catalog probably still sits somewhere in Walnut Park, exploring the development of technology at a number of schools, in a variety of grade levels, revealed something to Tinker that will never change. From kindergarten to 12th grade, the most important fundamental skills students need are the strong ability to read and the knowledge of basic math. These core skills establish a foundation upon which other advancements can build, proving that if students begin with a firm understanding they will prepare themselves for future challenges. Focusing on solidifying these fundamentals and getting back to the basics is how Tinker plans to simplify the school system at Glencoe, ensuring that each student receives a quality education at their personal level, so that those students with a strong foundation are equipped with the tools needed to succeed.
While Tinker desires the best for her students academically and works to improve test scores and graduation rates, she wants her students to thrive outside of the classroom as well. Rather than channel all their energy into upholding their status at Glencoe, Tinker encourages students to consider not just who they are as high schoolers, but who they want to become once they receive their diploma. Tinker understands that high school is four years, but their careers span a lifetime.
“Kids are so busy focusing on ‘I’ve got to get this ACT score, I’ve got to get this AP score, I need to be valedictorian or salutatorian,’” said Tinker. “Then, when they walk across the stage, they have no idea what they want to do. Preparing them to at least have an idea of where they want to go [is my goal]. They need to have a plan and a purpose when they walk out of [Glencoe], somehow, someway. Can you give it to them all? You certainly need to try.”
Tinker plans to invite career coaches to Glencoe to teach personality skills and conduct inventory interest surveys to help enlighten students as to where their talents and interests overlap, giving them options for professions where they are happy and successful. Through analyzing the career preparation program in 12th grade and implementing lessons in economics and history classes, Tinker hopes that when students walks through Glencoe’s doors on their final day of high school, they hold more in their hands than a diploma—they hold a better understanding of themselves and a brighter perspective on life.
Thirty-one years of teaching builds an abundance of memories. From Mardi Gras at Walnut Park to creating lifelong friends at Mitchell, from the first days of school when everyone is excited, dressed up with new clothes and shoes, to the last days of school filled with anticipation and joy for summer, memories from her time as an educator fill Tinker’s mind. She recalls Mitchell Principal Barbara Overholtzer dancing down the halls and reading Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona to students on the cafeteria’s spaghetti day, seeing the children light up in their Strega Nona hats, holding their Strega Nona pots, watching the pasta boil as they listened to Italian music. But Tinker also remembers some unpleasant memories that she will never forget, like the day when her heart sank in the school nurses’ office after she discovered a child in an abusive situation.
While that moment was difficult, Tinker serves as an example of the power teachers hold to help their students and to change lives for the better. Tinker always kept up with the boy in the nurses’ office, and years later, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, she saw him. When he thanked her for helping him get out of a bad situation, Tinker collected another memory that proves just how rewarding a career in education truly is, and an aspect of her job that she loves the most.
“Seeing where the kids end up [is what I enjoy the most],” said Tinker. “You know, when you’re seeing them little and you watch them evolve and grow into these young adults, and they come in one day off the street and they’re interviewing you, or you walk into the hospital with your grandmother and the emergency room nurse is little Jessica that you taught at Walnut Park…they pop up all over the place! Hearing ‘Mrs. Tinker, I remember that story about that ostrich egg,’ or ‘Mrs. Tinker, I still read that little story to my daughter that you read to me about that little caterpillar.’ Seeing the kids at the end is worth it.”
Tinker confessed that she did not realize when she began teaching all the lives she would influence or all the lives she has influenced today. Working at two schools, she did not see students for one year, like certain teachers might who are confined to a certain grade level. She taught the same children from kindergarten to fifth grade, watching them transform and grow, learn and evolve. She joked that her children will tease her about knowing every person in Gadsden, but in actuality, the numbers add up. Regardless of where she taught and who she taught, from her first class to her most recent, Tinker goes above and beyond to never forget one thing.
“I always try to remember their name, that’s the most important thing,” Tinker said. “Because you know, they’re influencing me too. I need to recall their name. It gets harder and harder to remember the names, but I still remember them. When they walk up, I can tell who they are. It makes them feel important and they are important to me. They’re supposed to be important to me.”
At future graduations, Tinker plans to invite former kindergarten teachers to watch the students they taught take the first steps into a new chapter of their lives. As she transitions into a new era of her own life, Tinker reflects on the opportunities a career in education gave her and the sense of accomplishment she hopes to feel upon retirement (however far away that might be).
“Through it all, good, bad, sad, glad, if one or two kids is better from what I said to them, how I treated them, or what I read to them, at the end of the day that’s a blessing in itself,” said Tinker. “A lot of people don’t have the chance to do that. You have no idea how many significant little minds you get to touch. I’m glad that I was part of somebody’s village. Maybe that helped, maybe I did make a difference.”
Throughout her years as an educator, Tinker learned countless lessons. Influential women in her life, like the educators in her family, instilled characteristics in her that she takes with her into her role as principal at Glencoe High. Her grandmother, a giver by nature, told Tinker to always be kind, pleasant and a blessing. Her mother, a disciplinarian, taught Tinker firmness and fairness. Her aunt, who helped her write papers, showed Tinker the dedication required to serve as an educator. Tinker combines these qualities with her own personal interpretation of a good principal that she strives to become: an administrator who is enthusiastic, dependable, fair, honest, trustworthy, knowledgeable, firm and well-rounded.
Tinker’s unwavering commitment to educating future generations is evident in her devotion to her students, from kindergarteners to seniors, creating an environment where they feel safe, loved and significant. From coaching little league basketball teams or volleyball teams to reading books to clusters of wide-eyed children to serving as the principal of Glencoe High School, Tinker remains the representation of an educator who despite her array of positions, schools and students kept her vision resolute and her determination to make a difference strong.
“No matter where you are as an educator, what system you work for, what state you work for, we always need to keep in mind why we’re doing this,” said Tinker. “It may not be the richest school or the poorest school, but you need to make it the best school because you’re there. You do the best you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can. I need to give my kids my best because they deserve it, but in return I expect their best…and you don’t ever forget [the students]. You really don’t. They’re just embedded—they’re part of your life.”