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Students leave the gymnasium to make their way to home room.

As much as anything, the first day of school is about new beginnings. A new classroom. New teachers. Even new schools.

On Thursday, Hamilton County students and teachers officially went back to school. New and veteran teachers alike were excited about the promise of a new year, a chance to change kids' lives and make a lasting impact. Newly minted educators watched weepy parents and kindergarteners say goodbye for the first time. They helped kids unpack their new crayons and notebooks. It's arguably the most exciting day of school, not counting the last, of course.

But a group of more seasoned teachers saw things differently on Thursday. Through the lense of decades of experience, many retired educators say they fear the direction current public officials are taking Tennessee's public education system.


On Thursday, some 42,000 students and 6,000 employees headed back to school in Hamilton County. The school system opened two new schools - Red Bank Middle and Ooltewah Elementary, the county's largest-ever elementary building. And for dozens of new teachers, Thursday was a day they'll likely never forget.

Paige Daniels had found herself in tears every day for the last week. A first-year, first-grade teacher at North Hamilton Elementary, Daniels has been frantically phoning friends and family members, nervous about taking over a classroom for the first time.

"We are shaping the future," she said. "Everything - every profession - relies on teachers."

Officials said the day went largely as planned. Buses and bells ran mostly on schedule. Traffic did back up at the county's two newest schools, though principals and law enforcement were on hand to help direct parents.

And while the day was largely about logistics - counting heads, getting down the routine - teachers were aware of the magnitude of their roles. Because it's not just about math and reading, Daniels said.

"I'm excited about watching my students grow, not only academically, but as [people], too," she said.

After working in linguistics in Maine, Emily Adams took her first step into teaching on Thursday at Chattanooga's Clifton Hills Elementary. Adams said she was particularly excited about working with kindergartners, who are experiencing school for the first time.

"Kindergartners have never been in school and they're just now learning to trust an adult outside of their home for the first time," she said.


At the same time, about 250 retired teachers gathered at Chester Frost Park for the annual get-together of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Retired Teachers Association. In their meeting, association leaders talked about Medicare plans and pension cost-of-living adjustments. Some white-haired retirees held canes or walkers, while others barely looked old enough to have grandkids.

"I have never seen so many happy, relaxed educators in one room in my life," said Sandy Hughes, president of the local teachers union. "People out there are excited, but not relaxed."

Many retirees said holding the annual picnic on the first day of school is a welcome reminder of how different life looks on the other side.

"I'm glad I'm here. This is where I want to be," said C.M. Chandler, who retired in 1991 after working as a band director for 31 years.

And retirement is a little bit sweeter for those who lament the recent changes to Tennessee's public education system. State officials have struck down collective bargaining rights, heightened the importance of standardized testing and changed everything from retirement benefits to tenure laws in the name of school reform.

Retirees said those policies reflect attitudes that are disrespectful toward teachers.

"That's been a big blow to the people that really do the work in the classrooms across Tennessee," said Darwin Lane, a 37-year principal who retired in 1994. "I worry about young people entering the profession with some of the new impositions being legislated."

Staff writer Jeff LaFave contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or