It all started with snapping turtles.
Rebecca Greene’s 7-year-old son discovered a nest of about 200 snapping turtles on their farm. He was thrilled to tell one of his summer teachers, Shirley Ritter, about his amazing find, and she invited him to share the discovery with his class. So the baby turtles traveled to school, all 200 of them in a large bucket with sand from their original nest. What started out as a class research project became a turning point for her son, said Rebecca Greene, now a special education teacher in Spartanburg District 5.
“Dr. Ritter understood his need for confidence in himself and a connection with the teacher which inspired my son to become a reader,” said Greene ‘92.
Kimberly Freeman ’04 said Ritter was easily the most influential professor in all of her time at Furman.
“Without her, I would have been lost in so many ways while in college,” said Freeman, who was named Lexington 1 District Teacher of the Year last year. “She encouraged me, challenged me, and pushed me to do more than I’d ever dreamed possible.”
Both her teaching ability and her interest in people have made Ritter an invaluable part of Furman University’s Education Department for the past three decades. She will retire from her position as professor of education on July 31.
Ritter’s first job was working for the family’s baby shoe business, Littonian Shoe Co. in Littlestown, Pa., where she started out cleaning toilets, filing, and helping on the production line. Having these experiences, she knew she enjoyed working with people, so teaching turned out to be the perfect fit.
Her career as an educator brought her to schools in both the United States and Australia. After graduating from college with a B.S. degree in the field of educating individuals with mental disabilities, Ritter set her sights on Australia for her first teaching position at the State School for Spastic Children in Queensland where she taught children with cerebral palsy. Returning to the United States after two years, teaching in southern Pennsylvania for a year, she soon headed back to Queensland and Brisbane for three years to teach and earn her Master of Educational Studies degree in special education from the University of Queensland. Again returning to the United States, Ritter completed the doctoral program in special education: mild disabilities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
She was excited to come south to Furman, not only for the warmer climate, but to become part of an education department at a liberal arts college. Thirty years later, she continues to work closely with students, both teaching education courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels and mentoring teacher candidates heading out into classrooms for the first time.
“Her experiences, enriched by years of study in Australia, made her teaching examples interesting to students intending to certify to teach in special education,” said Education Department Chairperson Nelly Hecker. “Over the years, teacher candidates have been grateful for Shirley’s good advice, for taking time to help them understand difficult material and for always communicating promptly. She has been the go-to person when students faced challenges and when they didn’t know how to organize their lives.”
Throughout her career, Ritter has been interested in effective teaching practices for all students, especially those receiving special education services.
“Furman has fostered many opportunities for me,” said Ritter, who has able to use several sabbaticals to conduct more in-depth research.
Her presentations at state, national, and international conferences highlight collaboration and inclusion for students with special needs. She is past president of the Teacher Education Division and previously served as treasurer for the Division of Learning Disabilities of the international Council for Exceptional Children.
Caroline Davidson ’10, a teacher at Duncan Chapel Elementary School in Greenville, presented with Ritter at the annual conference for the Council for Exceptional Children in Philadelphia, Pa., in April.
“Dr. Ritter has been committed to helping me grow as an educational professional,” said Davidson, who spent her first year as a teacher working closely with Ritter. “She is an inspiring role model.”
For Ritter, her proudest moments continue to be “hearing about my students’ successes and accomplishments.”
She plans to keep in touch with her former students after retirement, even as she and partner Stephen Hewitt continue their global travels, which launched with a trip to Hawaii in May.
Gardening and spending time with family and friends are also on Ritter’s agenda. “I am definitely looking forward to not having to set an alarm,” she said.