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A retiring second-grade teacher who began at Tarpon Springs Elementary in 1966 says she never wanted to teach anywhere else.
By TARA DOLAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001
TARPON SPRINGS -- After a 35-year teaching career, all of it at Tarpon Springs Elementary School, Karen Norwood could not leave her classroom without imparting a final lesson to her second-grade students: the definition of retirement.
"Does it mean you're tired of teaching?" one little boy asked.
"In a way I am," Mrs. Norwood said. "Do you know that I have been going to school for over half of a century?"
Is that a long time? he asked.
It was long enough for Mrs. Norwood, 58, to see Tarpon Springs Elementary install its first air conditioners and, later, its first computers. It also was long enough for her to call the school her second home and to see its children and teachers as her second family. On Friday, she closed the door to her classroom for the last time.
Though it was not an easy decision, she chose to retire in midyear so she could move in with her son and his wife and help take care of her twin granddaughters, who were born Feb. 13.
"It would be impossible to stay up half the night with the babies and then get up and come to school," Mrs. Norwood said.
Principal George Tosh said Mrs. Norwood, who has shared her classroom with her replacement in the weeks leading up to her retirement, will be missed by students and teachers.
"I am going to miss her sincere love of children," said Tosh, who has known Mrs. Norwood since 1975. "She has been a very caring, professional teacher and a team player with her colleagues."
Mrs. Norwood moved to Florida in 1965 with her husband, Bill, and began teaching at Tarpon Springs Elementary in January 1966. She said she never wanted to teach anywhere else.
"The teachers here are wonderful and would do anything for you," she said. "I came to know the children and their siblings, and before I realized it, I was teaching the children of my first students. I never wanted to leave."
Mrs. Norwood decided to become a teacher while enrolled at Eastern Montana College of Education. She said working at a school on the college campus made her want to make a difference in children's lives.
"The best thing about teaching is the creativeness that comes with developing a lesson plan to suit the class," she said. "I love working with kids. I would teach if they didn't pay me a thing."
Mrs. Norwood said her greatest achievement has been dealing with all the changes in education throughout the years.
She was one of about 2,000 Pinellas County teachers who resigned their jobs in 1968 and left their classrooms during a statewide teachers walkout to fight to improve the quality of education. She still has her "Resigner's card," which reads, "The resigners are Florida educators who, for the first time in the history of the United States, jointly resigned their position as educators that the children of Florida would be assured quality education."
In the early 1970s, Mrs. Norwood participated in several years' worth of school walkathons and bake sales so that air conditioners could be purchased for each classroom.
Integrating technology into the classroom also was a big challenge for Mrs. Norwood. But Tosh said Mrs. Norwood welcomed the technology with an open mind.
"She is one of the most receptive teachers I've worked with," Tosh said. "She knew the kids were already into new technology, so she jumped in with both feet."
Now Mrs. Norwood readily uses computer software to help children improve reading and math skills.
"The first training class I received was how to turn on the computer," she said. "It seemed so awesome at the time and now it has become second nature."
Mrs. Norwood is aware that the children she teaches today are different from the children 30 years ago.
"These kids are affected by the content they see on television. They know more," she said. "If I ask them if they know someone who owns a gun or someone who uses drugs, hands will go up."
But Mrs. Norwood said her second-graders still possess many of the same qualities as her earlier students.
"There is an innocence to them. They are losing their teeth," she said. "When their cat or dog dies, they look to you for hugs. Kids don't change in those ways."
Tosh said Mrs. Norwood is an anticipatory problem solver.
"All kids come to school with a certain amount of baggage, but she treats each child as an individual," Tosh said. "She can tell what child is having a bad day and know innately not to pressure the child with the day's reading lesson."
Mrs. Norwood said her strong organizational skills enabled her to effectively deal with these changes. She often remained at the school until 4 or 5 p.m. finishing paperwork or taking a training class.
"Some teachers don't do this; they don't spend the time that I do, but that's just part of who I am," Mrs. Norwood said.
Friday, after her retirement luncheon at Hellas Bakery, Mrs. Norwood said goodbye to a school system that she said has an uncertain future.
Mrs. Norwood said she worries that teachers still are underpaid and are overburdened with paperwork. She said parent involvement in the schools is not what it was. She said she wonders what effect the Legislature will have on the classroom and whether the changes will be for the best.
And yet she hopes schools will be able to recruit teachers who possess the same commitment to children and education that has propelled her throughout her career.
For now Mrs. Norwood is content to focus on time with her family. After spending the summer at their home in North Carolina, she and her husband will travel the United States in their new recreational vehicle. After 35 years in the classroom, she still loves talking about teaching, but she is ready to go.
"I've given all I can to education," she said.