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McNeely hopes to leave legacy of laughter, learning

South Whidbey Elementary School teacher Jan McNeely has announced she will retire from a 35-year career at the end of the school year in June. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
South Whidbey Elementary School teacher Jan McNeely has announced she will retire from a 35-year career at the end of the school year in June.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Teacher. Coach. Union representative. Athletic event manager. School director.

Jan McNeely is calling it a career.

After 26 years with South Whidbey School District, the long-time physical education teacher turned in her resignation and intent-to-retire notice this week. McNeely has less than 80 days left before she leaves behind the pink, blue, green and yellow jump ropes, the scooters, the scoops, basketballs, volleyballs, soccer balls and the multi-purpose room at South Whidbey Elementary School.

It was a two-year process of evaluating if she’d retire from a 35-year career, and her daughter Julie’s graduation from college this spring was the final motivation.

“We decided it would be kind of cool to end together,” McNeely said.

The not-quite 60-year-old teacher will vacate her myriad positions. She will cease being the co-president of the teachers union, the South Whidbey Education Association, at the end of June when the school year officially ends.

Though, after six years as co-president with Val Brown, McNeely plans to stay involved with a large group of retired teachers who live on the South End.

“It’s exhausting work,” McNeely said. “There’s never a day we don’t work on union stuff.”

Despite the battles she waged with the school district over staff layoffs, budget cuts and two consolidation efforts — one actualized and one canceled — McNeely said she wants her legacy to be one of laughter and learning.

Humor, she said, was instrumental during the good times and bad times of teaching.

She will be memorialized at the school.

“Jan will be missed,” said Jamie Boyd, the elementary school’s principal.

“Jan and I were talking one day and she said she wanted as her legacy one simple statement and to have it permanently painted in our gym: ‘Go outside and play!’ We will be honoring that request on behalf of all the children she has touched over the years,” Boyd said.

In her office in the multi-purpose room, Boyd has a banner that has one of her two inspirational quotes: “When you stumble, make it part of the dance.”

McNeely’s other life motto is from author Laurel Ulrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

McNeely’s competitive nature, though tempered over time, was not well-behaved at times. During volleyball matches, which were noisy and rowdy already, McNeely’s voice often rose above the din. Even though the surface nature of sports is winning and losing, McNeely maintained the most important result is active, healthy adults.

“I was so ultra-competitive when I started teaching and coaching,” she said. “What I find now is more helpful to kids is encouraging healthy and courageous competition.”

In 2008, McNeely retired from a 20-year volleyball coaching career on South Whidbey. She led the Langley Middle School team and was an assistant coach at South Whidbey High School, where she primarily coached the freshmen team.

That idea led her to modify games like dodgeball, or rarely play it. While kids are out of the game, she has them jump rope, for example.

When she moved to Seattle from her home town in Nebraska, she taught a middle school history and language arts block, despite having a major in physical education and a biology minor.

In that year, McNeely said she learned some of her greatest teaching lessons from Bud and Sue Turner, renowned across the Puget Sound area for their methods of teaching P.E. in early education. Their saying remains with her today.

“All active. All successful,” McNeely recited.

“They shouldn’t have to wait in line for P.E.”

She incorporated that philosophy into the elementary school’s year-long emphasis on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. McNeely focused on “Think win-win.”

“For me, it was more about teaching the kids than winning and losing,” McNeely said.

These ideologies may sound touchy-feely, but McNeely has stark expectations of her students. She admitted coaching freshman girls on the volleyball team was a 50-50 shot at them responding favorably. She didn’t want ambiguity in their understanding of her.

“I’m pretty black-and-white,” McNeely said. “Kids know what to expect from me.”

For her first year of retirement, she has clearly defined plans: Travel to Ireland with her husband David, attend every high school sports state tournament and not teach.

“The first year is all about me,” she said.

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