Old School

The Hamms have taught the students of Chatham County for more than 80 years 

By Matt White  |  Photography by Briana Brough

Every September, David and Ellen Hamm and their four daughters approach the changing season with a slightly out-of-place holiday greeting.

“The first day of school is our ‘Happy New Year’,” says Catherine Oldham, the Hamms’ youngest daughter and a teacher and reading specialist at Pittsboro Elementary School, where she recently won 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year. “It’s like spring, a new beginning,” says David. “Whatever your trials and tribulations – and all your accolades – from the previous year, you kind of start a clean slate in the new year. The vast majority of jobs out there are not like that.” Every fall since 1979, children returning to school in Chatham have been greeted by at least one member of the Hamm family. David and Ellen started that year as elementary school teachers. As Ellen taught at Virginia Cross Elementary and then at North Chatham Elementary, David bounced from Pittsboro Elementary, to an assistant principal position at Siler City Elementary to principal positions at Bonlee Elementary and back to Pittsboro Elementary. Their four daughters grew up with teaching as the family business. Today, both Catherine and her sister Elizabeth Hamm work at Pittsboro Elementary.

“During the summers, we would spend lots of time in the classroom with my mom, helping her get her classroom together,” says Catherine. “Or my dad would hire us to run the copier during the summer to make handbooks for the teachers. He would pay us by taking us out to lunch or buying us a new board game at the end of the summer.”

David retired from active teaching in 2007 and has served on the Chatham County Schools Board of Education since. Ellen retired in 2009.

A third Hamm sister, Allison Andrews, spent four years as a teacher assistant at Perry Harrison Elementary before moving to the Chatham County Council on Aging – a job, says David, for which her time in the classroom was good preparation.

“I ask her, ‘how are things going,’” says David. “She says, ‘You think little petty things would happen between five-year-olds. The same things happen between 80-year-olds.’”

As the number of teachers in the Hamm family grew, so did the school system they work in. In 2000, Chatham enrolled close to 7,000 students, according to North Carolina state records. In 2009, the number was just under 8,000. Last year, it was over 8,700.

“The problem is, you do not build schools predicting the future, you build schools after you’re already in trouble,” says David. “You don’t go to the tax payer, ‘well, we think there’s a need.’ And that’s how we’re going to be behind.”

Still, says David, he meets parents every year who move from nearby counties into Chatham with schools in mind.

“We’re the best kept secret,” David says. “We’re not Wake County, we’re not Chapel Hill, we’re pretty even keel.”

If you add it all up, the Hamm family has given more than 80 years to Chatham County classrooms, specifically. The senior Hamms are on 52 years and counting, including David’s time on the Board of Education. Catherine is in her 12th year of teaching, Elizabeth is in her seventh as a teacher assistant, Allison worked for four years before switching to senior work and a fourth Hamm sister, Melissa, worked for six years in Chatham County Schools before moving to the Alamance- Burlington School System where she now serves as a lead teacher for formative assessment.

And this year, Chatham classrooms will see yet another family member: Catherine’s daughter Audrey Jean Oldham, 5, is a kindergartener at Pittsboro Elementary.

“We told her, ‘you’ll see granddaddy in the halls sometimes,’” says David, who will occasionally stop by schools to catch up with colleagues. “It’s going to be interesting to see how she responds.”

“You have to look at your future from a historical perspective,” says David. “The schools provided my livelihood, my retirement and put all my kids through school. That’s why I feel an obligation to stay interested and keep working [for the school system].”

 CM

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