Jamie Pinckney, the recently retired principal of Okatie Elementary School, celebrates beneath a banner at the school that highlights its accomplishments during her 19-year tenure there. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Jamie Pinckney has taught so many Bluffton children that she has not only seen their offspring in school, but even some grandchildren.

During the past 40 years, the recently retired Okatie Elementary School principal has touched the lives of about 20,000 children and their parents as a teacher and administrator in four schools.

“I didn’t go to college to get into teaching. Being a Blufftonian, I went to be a marine biologist. I got an Associate’s in marine biology from the University of South Carolina Beaufort and went up to USC in Columbia. Then I realized that marine biology was far from what I wanted to do, so I had to rethink what I did,” said Pinckney. “I talked to friends who were already in the education field. They were excited about teaching, watching the light bulbs come on in the children they were teaching. The next semester I signed up for some education classes, really got hooked quickly and decided to change my major.”

She transferred into early childhood education and began her career at James Davis Elementary School in Dale when she returned home from college in 1982.

“I tell kids all the time you will change your mind 10 times before you become who you really want to be. You will travel down roads until you find something that fills you with enthusiasm,” she said.

Tracy Lanese, who is the new Okatie principal, said Pinckney “truly has the gift of loving children and seeing their excitement for learning.”

“The first thing I noticed was her depth of knowledge, and her constant energy,” said Lanese.

Pinckney now will be focusing her energies on working with the Lovable Paws Rescue in Ridgeland, but in her first days as a new teacher, she might have felt like the one in need of rescuing.

“When I entered the classroom the first time I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, they didn’t teach me anything in college.’ You walk in and you’re looking at 20 little faces, and you have to entertain them, have to engage them, and convince them that you’re in control and that you are prepared,” she laughed. “For a moment there you question yourself and ask are you crazy, you really meant to do this?”

With the help of experienced teacher’s assistant Kathy McLeod, Pinckney made it through her first year. Two years later she went to the old Michael C. Riley Elementary School when it was on Goethe Road and taught pre-kindergarten through third grade for the next 13 years.

“I loved my time in the classroom. I felt like I was making a difference. I loved my peers. We would work together, and you made sure you had somebody you could work with who had the same enthusiasm. For me that was Gwen Fields,” Pinckney said. “She was an exceptional teacher and did her entire 30 years in the classroom. We made each other do better each year by holding each other to a higher standard.”

Pinckney had no plans to be a principal, but a series of turnovers resulted in her being asked to step in as assistant principal.

“I did it on an interim basis and realized I was kind of good at it, so I went to school to get my Master’s in educational leadership,” she said. “I had two young boys at the time, but I would work at school until 3 p.m. then drive to USC in Columbia and return home at 11 p.m. My husband Billy has been so supportive during my educational journey.”

Pinckney was interim at M.C. Riley for two years, principal for one, worked for four years under Principal Jay Parks, moved to Bluffton Elementary to work with Kathleen Corley who is now principal of Red Cedar Elementary, and ultimately become the first principal of Okatie in 2003.

“This was not planned at all. My 10-year plan was to raise two wonderful boys, have fabulous summer vacations, and be a supportive person in the community,” she said. “I cannot say enough about how appreciative I am about the community – parent involvement, district support, several awards.”

Those two boys are Kalen, now a teacher in Chatham County, and Kwyn, who works at International Paper in Savannah. They figure prominently in her future plans, along with other passions.

“I have a granddaughter who is 6, and I love spending time with her. And my son just got married in February so we’re hoping there will be another grand,” she said. “But animal rescue is my second love. I hope to still help out at the school and I’ve put my name in the hat to volunteer.”

Pinckney hadn’t quite realized what she had been doing during her career until she began packing up her office.

“It was bittersweet. Looking at the cards from over the years, it makes you cry, but you realize you do make a difference,” she said.

Lanese expressed the same sentiment this way: “When I came to work for her as assistant principal last year, it definitely was the most joyous year that I’ve had professionally as an instructional leader,” she said. “I think she always values each person and the gift they bring to the table, and she really finds a way to harness that gift and how best to grow the children and each person.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.