Ena Shelley doesn’t have to watch the news to know the weather. Headache, oh, that means a cold front is coming through.
So, on January 9, as she ate her usual toast with peanut butter and honey, showered, put on her earrings—like always—she noticed a headache, but thought nothing more than Indianapolis must be experiencing a temperature shift. It was just her body’s way of giving her a quick weather report before she headed to work.
Like most days, Shelley got in her car, drove 14 minutes to Butler University listening to the TODAY Show, parked in the South Campus lot, and walked into her office in Room 163. She quickly headed downstairs to room 001M for a meeting with her leadership team.
A few minutes into the meeting, she was mid-sentence, when she realized something was very wrong.
“I had this pain like I have never felt before in my entire life. It was shooting down the right side of my head and felt like someone put a knife right through my eye. I knew something was wrong,” Shelley says. “The last thing I remember was wondering why the EMT team was carrying the stretcher down the stairs, as opposed to using the elevator. I remember thinking it would have been much simpler for them to use the elevator.”
Three brain surgeries later, Ena Shelley, Dean of Butler’s College of Education, hasn’t missed a beat. About four months removed from the hospital, she is sitting in her office, surrounded by children’s art work, walls of books, a cardboard cutout of a colleague based in Sweden, and Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With. It’s a rainy May morning, and Shelley has already had two meetings. She has a full schedule of them ahead of her, and the energy to match.
Shelley will complete a 37-year career at Butler at the end of May, but much like the physical wounds she has amassed since January, it is tough to tell. Those who know her best aren’t surprised.
“Ena is a person with great determination,” says Ron Smith, who is now principal at the IPS/Butler University Laboratory School 60 and was a student of Shelley’s. “I am sure this isn’t the way she would have mapped out her final semester, but if anyone would be back in the office, it would be her. She doesn’t let anything slow her down. She is someone who can endure anything.”
She is still undergoing tests to find out why she had a spontaneous brain bleed that January morning. But, she says, there may never be a definitive answer. She lived in fear for awhile, wondering if headaches were the sign of a weather pattern, or, something that only 3 percent of patients survive, as her doctors warned her husband and children as she was rushed into her first emergency surgery. But now she focuses on living in the moment, not looking back. Instead of getting up each morning thinking about all the tasks she should accomplish, she thinks about how lucky she is to have another day.
With retirement around the corner, though, it turns out everyone else is looking back, and thinking about all the things Shelley has done over her decades of work not only at Butler, but in the Indiana education arena.
She oversaw the infusion of the Reggio Emilia philosophy throughout the COE and the city, and then created two Indianapolis Public School/Butler Lab Schools. She shifted the model of the COE to one centered around student teaching and site-based instruction, established partnerships with several area schools, has been involved in state and national legislation and policy around the education of young children, and established a new physical space for the College on South Campus.
But more than all of that, when Shelley arrived at the COE, there was no clear collective mission or vision, colleagues say. She is, largely, behind a major shift, hiring and looking for collaborative, forward-thinking colleagues who now engage in joint decision making and responsibility, and who now rattle off the College’s mission on demand, they say.
Not bad for someone who never wanted to be a dean.
Always a teacher
Born to a funeral home owner and a stenographer, Ena Shelley always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
She loved playing school. She would teach anything to anyone. But, to be specific, it all started with baton twirling. Shelley is a baton twirler, so she would gather anyone who was interested in learning the craft and give baton lessons.
Her older brother and older sister are teachers, too. Her mom was secretary of the school board. Her sister is now president of the same school board back in Shelley’s hometown of Cloverdale, Indiana.
When Shelley reached high school she signed up for a Cadet Teaching program and became hooked on elementary education.
“I was instantly drawn to how children think,” she says.
She looked at Butler when it was time for college. But, ultimately, chose Indiana State University. There was one main difference between the two schools, she says.
“They had a Lab School, Butler did not,” she says. “That was what I was looking for—that hands-on experience where we would watch teachers working with kids and learn directly in a classroom.”
Another draw was a professor she met during her first visit, Jan McCarthy. McCarthy would later become Shelley’s academic advisor, and during one of their first advising appointments, Shelley told McCarthy that she was interested in teaching young children, but was really fascinated by what professors do.
McCarthy never dismissed that, Shelley says.
After graduating, Shelley started teaching kindergarten in Perry Township, while getting her master’s degree at Indiana State. Then, one day, a call came from McCarthy.
“She’s on the other line saying, ‘Do you still think you want to do what I do?’ and I couldn’t believe she even remembered because I mentioned that so many years ago,” Shelley says.
McCarthy offered Shelley a doctoral fellowship. It started in three weeks.
Ideals are formed
The house had caught on fire, and the family could not afford to rebuild it. The floors were now dirt. The back walls were made of stapled-up cardboard refrigerator boxes. Taped to the cardboard boxes were the children’s art work, spelling lists, and graded tests.
This, more or less, was the scene that played out every other Saturday when McCarthy, Shelley, and the rest of the doctoral students traversed the state of Indiana as part of the doctoral program. From downtown Indianapolis, to Gary, to Terre Haute, they hit all corners of the state as part of the Head Start Program—a federal program that promotes school readiness for low-income families.
“When you see that kind of poverty it has a huge impact,” Shelley says. “I learned from the teachers in those towns that that is why you never say a parent doesn’t care. You don’t know what is going on. In spite of all that is in that parent’s life, she cares, and she is doing the best she can do. People are so quick to group people. And I say you don’t know those people. By the grace of God you aren’t in their shoes. Don’t make assumptions about that. Every time, no matter where I was, it was parents wanting better for their children, and wanting to do right by their children. That lesson has stayed with me.”
Shelley says she was 26 when she first walked into an IPS classroom. All the teachers were African American, old enough to be her mother, and wise beyond her years. After her first day she called McCarthy.
On the phone, Shelley expressed doubt about what she could possibly bring to the table as a teacher. The other teachers had experiences Shelley didn’t.
“Jan stopped me mid-sentence and explained that was the entire point, I had already learned the lesson. I was there to learn from them,” Shelley says. “And boy, they taught me. Those women really, really shaped what I thought about what we have to do to help all children, and how to understand adversity in a deep, profound way when it comes through the school door. What what can we, as teachers, do, and how do we prepare teachers to be able to work with that? How do you lift a community up, especially when I saw what I saw?”
Shelley also traveled the country with McCarthy during her doctoral program, watching her mentor testify at the state level and national level.
At the time, Indiana had next to no regulations regarding people who work with young children, and McCarthy was the president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Essentially, anyone could teach young children.
So, McCarthy traveled the state, at first, talking to legislators about the importance of supporting improved quality of programs for young people. And Shelley would tag along. Then they took their gospel to Washington DC. Summer after summer after summer.
“A lot of people have the ability to teach,” says McCarthy, who is 90-years-old, has been in the education field for more than 30 years, and keeps in touch with Shelley via group text. “But often, they don’t have that extra dimension. That vision side. Ena has that. She sees needs in our field and wants to find ways to meet those needs. She is an idea person and a person who solves problems. She has that extra dimension that allows her to make real impact.”
When it was time to graduate from her doctoral program at ISU, Shelley wondered about applying for a job at Butler—the school she turned down as an undergraduate—because she heard good things about it from teachers at Perry Township.
She applied, and got a call back. But, the news wasn’t so positive. It was the outgoing dean. He called to tell her a new dean was coming in, there were no openings, and they haven’t hired anyone in seven years.
‘It was meant to be’
After a 37-year career at Butler that included two stints as Interim Dean, that then led to Shelley becoming Dean in 2005, she says it was all ‘really crazy and meant to be.’
That’s because, after applying and being told there were no openings and no new hires in seven years, Shelley crossed Butler off the list. She started looking at IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis.
Then, a month later, her phone rang. It was the new Dean of the College, and there was an opening. Shelley interviewed, and started at Butler as an Assistant Professor in June 1982.
But, things weren’t exactly as she thought they would be, or should be.
“When I first came to Butler, and I don’t mean to sound critical, but I was taken aback,” Shelley says. “Most of our students were placed in very white privileged schools when it came to student teaching. They came from white privilege, and they student taught in white privilege, then they went back to white privilege. I thought to myself, there is this whole other world out there that we need to be placing our students in. there are students who need our great teachers. It was eye opening for me. There simply wasn’t enough rigor in our program. It was very traditional of teacher education and it wasn’t what I had experienced and I wondered why.”
So, Shelley did what she was wired to do: worked to make change.
She felt like Butler students weren’t seeing the bigger picture. From her experiences, she knew partnerships with public schools, and a Lab School, were essential pieces of the bigger picture. But, Shelley was also the lone voice.
Until Arthur Hochman came to interview.
“I was really thinking, I don’t know if I see Butler as the place I see staying,” Shelley says. “I just didn’t know if I saw myself there for the long haul because philosophically, it wasn’t working. Thank heavens, six years after I started, Arthur interviewed, and everything changed.”
Hochman came to Butler from New York City. He had never been to Indianapolis before his interview. But, he vividly remembers interviewing in the basement of Jordan Hall. Shelley was there, and after his interview, he called his wife immediately.
“I told her I met someone who is really, really smart, really funny, and has a wonderful heart,” says Hochman, who has been at Butler now for 31 years. “I asked my wife how she would feel about moving from New York City to Indianapolis. There was dead air.”
Hochman eventually convinced his wife. They moved to Indianapolis because of Shelley, he says. Shelley calls Hochman her ‘kindred spirit,’ the reason her career flourished at Butler. Hochman’s daughter often asked him, ‘can we go see the laughing lady,’ referring to Shelley.
The two of them got to work. They added a couple other ‘kindred spirits’ to the elementary education team who were philosophically aligned.
One of the first things they did was establish a full year of student teaching. Butler became one of the first programs in the country to have that. They also built partnerships with IPS, Lawrence, Washington, and Pike Townships, placing Butler student teachers all over.
Then, there was the master practitioner program, which still exists today. A master teacher would come to Butler and be part of the College for a year, and the College would pay a first-year teacher salary as a replacement. The master teacher would look at the College’s curriculum, teach, and share relevant information with students.
Butler professors also started teaching their classes in schools.
“This was a game changer,” Shelley says. “The partnerships were key because I would be in a classroom with my students on the floor working with kids and students would be by my side, and I would say, see, did you catch what that child just did? That is Vygotsky Proximal Development right there. That is what we just read about. It brought everything to life.”
In the back of their minds, from the beginning, there was always the need for a Lab School.
Lab School comes to life
Shelley had read about Reggio Emilia for quite some time. And in 1998, she was ready to go see it in practice, first hand.
So, she took a sabbatical to Italy, and realized everything needed to change.
“It was unbelievable,” she says. “When I was there I knew we had to change our entire curriculum. We had no schools on this pathway, and because of that, it would be impossible to teach undergrads this type of teaching.”
Reggio Emilia follows the interests of the child, and builds on what children know. It starts with the belief that children are all capable, confident, competent learners, and as teachers, it is your job to not just teach, but also learn. There is no thought that a child can’t do something.
When Shelley returned from Italy, she started implementing this method of teaching at the Lawrence Township Learning Community in the early childhood program. Then, with Shortridge, Warren Early Childhood Center, and St. Mary’s Childhood Center. Eventually, Butler students got involved, too, learning along with the teachers at these schools.
But, that elusive Lab School was always on Shelley’s mind. And she continued to make her pitch.
She eventually got a meeting with Gene White, IPS Superintendent at the time, and Bobby Fong, Butler’s President at the time. They told her to bring a list of everything she needed to make a Lab School happen.
She arrived at the meeting, sitting between the two men. She gave each a copy of her list. There was silence for a long time. Then, they both said the list looked good to them.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Shelley says. “Just like that, I thought, this was going to happen.”
Now, there are two Lab Schools. Ron Smith, who first met Shelley in 1984 when he showed up on Butler’s campus and Shelley was his advisor, is principal at the first Lab School. Shelley told Smith about Reggio Emilia after her sabbatical. She suggested he read a book about it, after he expressed some doubts about its effectiveness.
He finished the book on a plane ride. When he landed he called Shelley and told her he had to get involved in a school that taught this way.
But it is much more than just this philosophy that Smith owes to Shelley.
“I like to say that I am convinced I am Ena’s favorite student of all time, but I know that there are thousands of other Butler grads that also know they were Ena’s favorite student of all time,” he says. “Ena just has a way of making you feel as though you are the most important person in the world when you are interacting with her.”
When Smith walked into Shelley’s office as a freshman, he wasn’t into school all that much. It always came easy to him in high school. Grades weren’t important to him. He suspects he would have gone on to become a teacher regardless of the college he went to, but because of Shelley, and because of Butler, his career has become so much more.
“I often have reflected on what my path might have been and I just suspect that whatever success I have had in life is in large part due to the opportunity I got at Butler, and more importantly, is due to my opportunity to have interaction with, and to learn from, Ena,” Smith says. “The College of Education is a very personal college. It is a college where you feel that people know you and care about you. I just suspect that if I had gone to a larger university, I would have gotten my degree, would have become a teacher, but I don’t think my career would have been what it has been if I hadn’t had the chance to learn from Ena.”
‘Everything has worked out the way it was supposed to’
On New Year’s Eve 2018, Shelley wrote in her journal.
“Wow, what a year. Took students to France, took students to Italy, bought a house, decided to retire.”
Then, her journal went blank.
“Maybe next time, I shouldn’t write all that down, I should keep it in my head,” Shelley says. “Maybe I jinxed myself.”
On Jan. 9, everything changed. Doctors tell her now it was a spontaneous brain bleed. After ‘a gazillion’ MRIs, MRAs, and tests Shelley doesn’t even recall, the conclusions all point to just bad luck. A random occurrence that likely won’t happen again.
Her head is still tender. She cannot put headphones in, can only sleep on her back or her left side–she puts pillows up so she remembers not to roll over, and doctors say it will likely be another six months before she feels fully herself.
That day is still fresh in her mind. Angela Lupton called 911. She kept squeezing Katie Russo’s hands as she waited for the ambulance to arrive. There were cold paper towels on her. But she doesn’t remember anything after getting in the ambulance.
They rushed her into surgery. Her brain had been pushed beyond the midline. Three percent of people survive what Shelley ended up surviving. Doctors told her husband, as they rushed her into surgery, that they didn’t expect her to make it out alive. Her son was speeding on the highway, en route to the hospital from Louisville, Kentucky.
Shelley was in intensive care for six days. She doesn’t remember any of it. Then, on Jan. 11, her brain started bleeding again. They went back in for a second surgery. Her husband signed the papers as they rushed her down the hallway and into surgery. Again.
After the second surgery, Shelley was improving. Six days later, she was starting to make progress. She stood up for the first time in about three weeks. A speech therapist arrived and asked Shelley to name as many words as possible that start with the letter F. That was easy. The speech therapist switched to A. Shelley opted with ‘anthropomorphism.’ The speech therapist moved on to another test. Her wires were clearly connecting.
Shelley was making such positive progress that she met her goal—she was able to attend the national American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Conference in Louisville on Feb. 24. But, after the conference, she had a seizure.
She was rushed to the hospital for another surgery. She had an infection. Her left arm didn’t work for awhile, she answered emails with one finger, and her short term memory is still not where she would like it to be.
“But, honestly, I feel so blessed,” she says. “I don’t have cancer, I have another day. I think of things differently now. Everything has worked out for me the way it was supposed to, and I am just lucky to have another day.”
With retirement right around the corner, Shelley says she is most proud of the 16 people she has hired into the College, as well as the partnerships she has developed, and the Lab Schools.
But more than that, it is the vision and mission of the College that will outlast all of that, she says. It is the work she set out to do when she got to Butler—change the vision of the College—but the groundwork for which was laid as a student long before stepping on campus.
“I believe if you are a teacher, you should be able to be a teacher of all children, not just some children,” she says. “Every child in our society deserves a great teacher, and you may not know where you will be as a teacher, but I feel like the way we shape our country is through education and if we want a better life for everyone, we have to do our part as teachers to make that happen.”
Now, she will retire to Savannah, Georgia, but has family in Indianapolis and Louisville, so will be in town often. She will be as involved, or not involved, in the College as the new Dean would like. But, no matter how physically involved she is, her impact will be felt on campus and in the community.
“It is impossible to be in the education field and not feel Ena’s influence around the city, and quite frankly, the state,” Smith says. “So yes, while she is retiring, her impact will always be felt because of all the work she has done that will, honestly, likely outlast the majority of us. That is true impact and that is Ena.”