Teacher starts her 51st year in the classroom

By Bill Leukhardt, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 7, 2015 at 1:21 p.m.



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BERLIN, Conn. (AP) — In 1965, Amelia Kulak was a new teacher and Mary E. Griswold Elementary was a new school.

Kulak, 20, was hired right out of college to teach first grade. She started out at the Percival School, and moved to Griswold two years later.

Percival is long closed, and is now the town's senior center. But Griswold is still going strong, and so is Kulak, soon to be 72.

When Griswold opened for its 51st school year this fall, Kulak was in her classroom, still teaching first grade.

Other staffers seek her out for advice, and she was the keynote speaker at a convocation last month when teachers gathered to prepare for the school year.

"She's wonderful, inspirational," Superintendent David Erwin said. "She's seen a lot of changes in her career and is still excited and passionate about teaching. I asked her to speak. She has much to offer."

Kulak said that despite the many changes in education — testing, technology and curriculum — one crucial factor remains unchanged: The children who enter her classroom year after year, decade after decade.

"I don't think the children are any different," she said. "They do come to school knowing more now than they did when I first began, but they're basically the same. They're eager to learn. So unspoiled. So innocent. They learn almost by magic. Still very enthusiastic."

Kulak said that from the start she wanted to teach first grade. She has had opportunities to teach other grades and take other assignments that might have led her into administration. But she stayed with first grade.

"I began just wanting to make school a happy place," she said. "Getting the right answer is not as important as getting a child to think."

She said she decided on a career in teaching while in the sixth grade, when a teacher told a story about using all one's talents.

"I thought, 'When I grow up I need a job that lets me use all my talents. I like people. I want to do an important job with and for people.' It was that morning in the sixth grade that I decided I wanted to become a teacher."

When she began teaching, the emphasis was on "Look. Say. Memory. Now we encourage thinking, which is good."

Class sizes were larger when she began, with 28 to 30 students the norm. Classes now are usually below 20 students. She has 17 this year, which she says makes it easier to work closer with students.

Kulak said that when she started in 1965, she had one reading book to use. But she wanted more than that one textbook, so she would go to her hometown library in New Britain and take out the maximum 10 books allowed and bring them to school to use.

"The Dr. Seuss 'I Can Read' books were just coming out. I'd take the children outside under a tree and have a reading club," she said.

Now schools have lots of books, including nonfiction, a type of first grade literature that was not common when she began her career. Her classroom has new technology, such as iPads for students and a Smart Board for lessons.

"I had to learn how to use computers," she said. "It was a challenge, but I appreciate what it allows us to do. Technology is helpful and can be motivational."

Kulak said teachers are more supportive of each other now than when she began.

"Our classroom doors are open. We help. We share. Teachers are much better prepared than when I started," she said.

She has taught more than 1,000 first-grade students and can remember most of them once she hears their names. Recognizing them as adults is not easy, she said.

"I'll be 72 in November. I had always planned to retire at age 57. But when that came, I decided to stay longer. I work hard and enjoy it. I was really sick five years ago and was out of work for a while. I hated it. I felt so useless. When I recovered, I was so happy to return to work."

The talk she gave to faculty last month reflected her enthusiasm. She told the staffers that they must get to know students and become their advocates.

"Recently, I asked myself, 'What is the most important truth I have learned during these past 50 years?' It is, listen to the children. They show and tell us what they need to grow intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically."

She told of an assignment in persuasive writing she gave to her class in June. They had to write a letter. The class decided at recess that the letter should be a request to their teacher to allow 30 minutes of free choice time each day.

"They said, 'We need to talk," I answered, 'You talk all the time.' They disagreed. 'We only talk about what you want us to talk about. We want to talk about what is important to us.' "

She agreed to their request.

"I will strive to give my students enough time and freedom to be who they are and to be the person they choose to be," she said.

Laurie A. Gjerpen, principal of Griswold for 14 years, said Kulak is a terrific teacher and resource for staff.

"She continues to want to be a better teacher," Gjerpen said. "She brings a great perspective to all staff, including myself. How can you not respect someone who has the experience, willingness and drive to make each student succeed?

"Nothing she does is because of herself. It's because of what she knows about students and learning. And that is a lot."

___

Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Bill Leukhardt

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