By Josh Heath

On her last day as assistant principal at Harlem High School, the faculty and staff gave Dr. Ellen Lewis a rocking chair with “52 years” painted on the back, which represents the number of years she served as an educator in Richmond and Columbia counties. But Lewis, who retired in January, says she hasn’t spent any of her new-found freedom rocking on the front porch just yet. Instead, she’s been busy sorting through boxes of educational materials accumulated over more than half a century as a teacher and administrator. 

Lewis graduated from Barry University in Miami and began her teaching career in 1967 at Bayvale Elementary School in Richmond County. She also taught at Terrace Manor Elementary School and Wheeless Road Elementary School before transferring to Grovetown Elementary School, where she taught from 1975 to 1988. Over the years, Lewis taught English, math, science and social studies to students in fourth through twelfth grades. In 1988, she accepted a position working with at-risk students at Harlem High. Then, after earning master’s and doctoral degrees in Leadership and Administration from the University of South Carolina, Lewis became one of the school’s assistant principals in 1992. 

One of her major responsibilities was student discipline. “I’m a problem-solver more than anything,” says Lewis. She says she was effective at solving student disciplinary problems because she calmly counseled students and allowed them to explain their side of the story. “You can’t always look at the bad behavior without finding out the underlying cause,” Lewis says. Regardless of the cause, she assigned the appropriate punishment for behavioral issues, but many students thanked her for taking the time to listen before leaving her office. Lewis didn’t lose her temper in these meetings. “The worst child you work with is not Satan,” she says.

Of course, Lewis witnessed many changes throughout her career, including major technological advances, but the change that had the biggest impact on education was integration, she says. After being at Harlem for so many years, Lewis had the opportunity to work with three generations of students, and each of these generations was unique. She graduated from college and began her career in the 1960s, a vastly different time. Back then, college-educated young women often pursued careers in either teaching or nursing, but Lewis was initially drawn to another career path: acting. She enjoyed performing in plays at Barry University. “One day, I realized I wouldn’t be the next Broadway actress and needed to find a way to support myself,” Lewis says. That’s when she decided to study English and education.

While Lewis could’ve become a principal, the idea never appealed to her because she enjoyed the one-on-one interaction she had with students. A principal is responsible for so many aspects of running a school, such as overseeing building maintenance and ensuring school safety, that there is often little time left to work closely with students, which Lewis loved. “The principal can’t do everything,” she says. Ultimately, Lewis wanted a career that would allow her to help people, and she spent over two-thirds of her life devoted to that mission.