Side by side
SHS husband and wife teaching team take on new challenge
By Thomas Tingle
Record Managing Editor
Having a husband and wife team who are both teachers and teach at the same school is not an unusual find.
However, having a husband and wife team, who not only teach at the same school, but also teach the same subject in classrooms separated by only a thin concrete wall, is a rarity.
For Dennis and Elizabeth Willingham, who have completed their first year of teaching Spanish at Sparkman High School, working side by side has not only strengthened the teaching abilities, but their marriage and their faith in God as well. Dennis has been a teacher for more than 11 years and Elizabeth has taught since 1994. The two knew they wanted to become teachers many years ago. But they didn't realize that their future spouse would have the same desire.
Both are 1991 graduates of The University of North Alabama in Florence. Dennis graduated in May of 1991 and majored in Spanish and history and secondary education. Elizabeth graduated in December of 1991 with a major in Spanish and French.
"Elizabeth and I were in several Spanish classes together at UNA. It is at UNA where we first met," Dennis said.
After graduating from UNA, Dennis, who was reared in the small Walker County community of Dora, moved to Covington, Ga., where he taught for one year at Cousins Middle School.
"It was my first teaching job and I really didn't enjoy it," Dennis said. "After my first year in Covington, I knew I needed to do something else."
Dennis put together a new resume and began applying for a teaching job in Alabama. He was hired in the fall of 1992 to teach at Handley High School in Roanoke – a town of only 6,000 residents with a high school enrollment of just under 450 students in grades 9-12.
Dennis and Elizabeth didn't begin dating until January of 1992 and continued their dating relationship for the next two years.
While Dennis was teaching in Roanoke, Elizabeth went to The University of Alabama where she earned her master's degree in Spanish in May of 1994. In June of 1994, Dennis and Elizabeth were married.
Elizabeth moved to Roanoke but was unable to get a teaching job in her new hometown. However, a teaching position was available 35 miles away in LaGrange, Ga.
"That was quite a challenge for me to drive everyday from Roanoke to LaGrange and have to remember that when I entered the state of Georgia, I was also entering a different time zone," Elizabeth said. "When it was 7:15 a.m. in Roanoke, it was 8:15 a.m. in LaGrange. I had to adjust my clock to make sure that I was leaving Roanoke by at least 6:15 a.m. CDT to get to LaGrange by 8 a.m. EST. When I left school shortly after 3 p.m. each day, I would get home shortly after 3 p.m. in Roanoke. Dennis was just getting out of school by the time I got home from school an hour earlier."
While in Roanoke, Dennis and Elizabeth first lived in a rented home. It was less than a mile away from Handley High School.
"Elizabeth will never let me down for that," Dennis said.
After commuting two years back and forth from Roanoke to LaGrange, Dennis and Elizabeth built a new on a piece of property located half way between Roanoke and LaGrange. It would now take Dennis just as long to get to work as it did for Elizabeth.
"It was the right thing to do," Dennis said. "After two years of commuting, Elizabeth was worn out."
While at their respective schools, Dennis and Elizabeth became very active in extracurricular activities and sponsored several school clubs. Before they married, Dennis was attending Rock Mills Methodist Church where he became a youth director for three years. He quit that position to work on earning his master's degree from The University of West Georgia. He earned his degree in 1999.
"After we got married, we attended Rock Mills Methodist Church, but we decided to visit First Methodist Church in Roanoke," Dennis said. "We were both hired as the directors of the youth and children's ministry."
Since Roanoke was a small community, Dennis and Elizabeth said it wasn't hard to know everyone in town and know what was going on with everyone as well.
At their church, they knew everyone and everyone knew them.
"The church family at First Methodist was like our second family, but Elizabeth and I knew we wanted to live closer to our own families in Dora and Decatur where Elizabeth is from. We made the decision to put our resumes in schools closer to home and see what happened."
Both were offered jobs in the Birmingham area for the upcoming 2000-2001 school year, but Dennis and Elizabeth were unable to get out of their contracts in Roanoke and LaGrange and the two positions fell through.
"It guess it wasn't the Lord's will for us to move at that time, so we went on and kept teaching where we were," Dennis said.
Toward the end of the 2000-2001 school year, Dennis and Elizabeth began putting feelers out to see if there were any teaching jobs available. By June of 2001, the two were interviewed for teaching positions in Limestone County. At the same time, officials at Sparkman High School got in contact with Dennis and Elizabeth to tell them the school had two Spanish teaching positions available for the 2001-2002 school year.
"It was a hard decision to make, but within two weeks of being hired to come and teach at Sparkman, we sold our home," Dennis said.
"Leaving Roanoke was hard because we were so attached to the community," Elizabeth said. "We prayed about it and by selling our home so fast, we knew that this is what God wanted us to do."
"We packed up and moved to Madison County," Dennis said. "A lot of tears were shed at church, but we knew God was with us in our new venture."
Coming to teach at a school with more than 1,600 students has been quite an adjustment for Dennis and Elizabeth. Enrollment at Sparkman has continued to rise each year and it is projected that more than 1,800 students will be attending Sparkman at the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year.
"One thing that is different here at Sparkman is the fact that a lot of students that go to this school are not originally from Alabama. Back in Roanoke, everyone there was born, lived and will die in Roanoke," Dennis said. "Here at Sparkman, there are a lot of affluent kids that have come from all over the country."
Dennis and Elizabeth noted that more than 60 percent of the students in their classes are not originally from Alabama.
At the close of this school year, Dennis and Elizabeth were told to come back to teach next year. They say they are looking forward to the new school year, but they are glad the summer break has arrived.
"There are four husband and wife teams here at Sparkman, but we are the only husband and wife couple who teach the same subject," Elizabeth said. "In Roanoke, Dennis taught in Roanoke and I taught in LaGrange – we had a 35 mile distance between us. Here in Madison County, we see each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That has taken some time to get used to even though we've been married for eight years."
"I know that it will take us a little more time to get adjusted to this school and living here in Madison County," Dennis said. "Both of us were familiar with Huntsville and Madison, but we knew nothing about the Harvest, Monrovia and Toney areas and it was new territory for us. However, God has led us here and He has been with us all the way. We've got each other and we will do fine."