When Gay Roberts began teaching at Cannon School, it was known as Cabarrus Academy and had only about 90 students. Now the school is housed in a larger facility with 825 students ranging from pre-kindergartners to high school seniors.
Things have changed, but one thing has always remained the same: her love for children.
"It's hard to believe people pay you to do something like this," Roberts said.
After 39 years in education, 33 of which were spent at Cannon School, Roberts, 61, will retire at the end of the school year.
Before she became Cannon School's head of the lower school, which includes pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, Roberts taught 284 students in her career as a first-grade teacher at Cannon.
A former high school basketball player, Roberts thought she wanted to become a physical education teacher.
But when a relative encouraged her to work with Head Start, a program that teaches preschool-age children, she realized what she wanted to do: work with young children.
Her first teaching job was at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Kannapolis, where she taught first grade.
The move to Cabarrus Academy came in 1976 when a friend who had a daughter at the school persuaded Roberts to apply for an open teaching position.
"As soon as I walked in the school, I just fell in love with the whole setting," Roberts said.
Cabarrus Academy was in the historic home of textile entrepreneur J.W. Cannon on Union Street in Concord.
Roberts said she loved the enrichment opportunities the school offered. Both of her sons attended Cabarrus Academy.
She was a first-grade teacher there until 1994, when she became head of the lower school when Cannon moved to its current location off of Poplar Tent Road.
Even in the school's new, bigger facility, it still felt like home, Roberts said.
"It still had that feeling to me," she said.
She had held many roles at Cannon: teacher, academic dean, basketball coach and now head of the lower school.
Seeing the lightbulb turn on in a child's mind has always been the highlight of her job, she said.
"There's no greater thing than to teach a child to read," she said.
As head of the lower school, Roberts supervises teachers, makes adjustments to the curriculum, works with parents and provides discipline to students when necessary.
She said that when she initially made the switch from the classroom to administrative work, she would sometimes look in on the first-grade classroom.
"That was the class I was supposed to have," she said. "It was a strange feeling."
But she hasn't lost her connection with students. Earlier this month, she wore a pin a student made for her. A cutout of a Christmas tree with shiny, multicolored sequins was pinned to her jacket.
"When you have a classroom, that's like your family," she said. "You care about them like your own."
Her students have kept it in the "family," too. Some of the students at the school now are the children of Roberts' former students.
Tracy Wade, a third-grade teacher at Cannon School, has worked with Roberts for about nine years. She said Roberts would be missed.
"What I'll always remember is how she cares for the kids," Wade said. "It's the loving guidance I'll remember."
Roberts said several people have asked her when she would retire.
"I kept telling them when the time is right, I'll know," she said. "The time's right."
In her retirement, she plans to spend time with her grandchildren and take care of her 94-year-old father. She also plans to give back to the community through volunteer work, something she's always wanted to do but couldn't because of her busy schedule.
But she knows she'll miss Cannon School.
"The thing I'll miss most is the children," she said. "Children keep you young. You're doing something to shape the future when you work with kids."