Teacher retiring after 40 years at Cassville

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Connie Christen, Cassville Elementary School kindergarten teacher, helps students Wesley Garner, left, Ava Hinson, middle, and Honesty Hall with reading activities during class recently. Christen, a 40-year employee of Cassville Schools, plans to retire at the end of this year. Kayla Monahan/reporter@cassville-democrat.com

Connie Christen shares memories from her years in kindergarten class

For teachers like Connie Christen, teaching is not a job, but a passion.

After 40 years at Cassville School District, she has turned in her resignation.

While some struggle with what they want to be, Christen knew from a young age that teaching was her calling.

"Teachers are called," she said. "You can have skill, but it's more of a calling to do this."

She recalls attending third grade in Exeter and being inspired by her teacher. From there, her family helped her make a plan so that she could attend Crowder College and then move on to finish her teaching degree at Missouri Southern in Joplin.

"I can't remember ever not wanting to teach," Christen said, "My family was always behind me."

Christen did student teaching in Neosho, and then began substitute teaching.

She had an interview at Cassville with Eunice Thomas, former elementary school principal, and when Thomas called to offer her the position, she needed someone to start immediately teaching students who were visually impaired. Christen was taking a class that day, and was unable to make it to Cassville, but they agreed to meet in the middle and both started driving. They met at the country store in Ridgely and Christen signed her first contract on the hood of her car.

After 40 years of teaching, Christen has seen many changes at the Cassville R-4 School District. When she first began teaching, her classroom was still under construction. Due to a steel strike, the school was unable to finish the classrooms before the school year started. She had to make the best of her time while teaching students in the hallway. The unfinished section, which was to become the new kindergarten, left classes being taught in the cafeteria, the shop and the hall.

She still recalls the first day the classroom was finished. She closed the door and nervously thought, "It's just me. I'm responsible for all of these kids."

After nine years of teaching special needs students, Christen switched to kindergarten where she remained for the next 31 years, even staying in the same classroom for 22 of those years.

Other changes she has seen include many of the building projects and kindergarten being changed from a half-day to a whole day. Christen remembers how the police chief used to pick up all the kindergarteners going to the babysitters and take them in his police car.

She also recalls how teachers would once swat students if they were acting up in class. One of the biggest differences was moving the date to when children could start school. She said she once had a child who was 4 years old for the first six weeks of school, and now most of them are 6 years old. 
"When I first started, nothing was on a computer," she said. "Now, I don't know what I would do without one."

One of Christen's biggest influences was Lou Ann Priest, who helped start the first public kindergarten in Cassville. As kindergarten was beginning, the area teachers would meet one Saturday each month to share ideas and talk about what was happening.

"I learned more from those ladies than I ever did in college," she said. "As a young teacher, that was a real plus."

One of her favorite parts of teaching is getting to see students grow up and having their own kids that attend to her class. Even on grandparent's day, the parents she once had conferences with have now become the grandparents. This year, she has a boy whose father was previously in her class.

"I'm thankful to be part of the beginning of the educational journey for so many kids," she said. "I love being at school, and most days this is where I want to be. I've been blessed to be in the same school district this long.

"I can truly say I have enjoyed 40 years. The staff and my colleagues here have been like a family."

Christen chose to stay in kindergarten because of her love for the students.

She recalls a student running into class a few years ago and asking her, "Do you like my cold heart?" He had a new Carhartt jacket.

Another student was bouncing off the walls when she took him aside to discipline him, and the boy pulled out his ears, puffed up his face and said, "I can be a monkey."

"That's life in kindergarten; you never know what they will do," Christen said. "They are always pulling stuff."

Another student told the aide his teacher was cussing when she told the class to stay on the asphalt due to the muddy playground.

"It's the stories they tell and the way they grow," Christen said. "They're so excited, and so affectionate. They give hugs and tell stories. It's better than any television show."

While many teachers would have used the same lessons after 40 years, Christen liked to keep everything new.

"Connie is very progressive, but she knows when to be old school," said Cheryl Stockton, instructional assistant.

While working in the classroom with Christen, Stockton has observed how she takes a topic, like teaching the calendar, and incorporates different topics, including math, patterns, subtraction and counting.

"She squeezes in as much as she can," Stockton said. "Even with the worst kids, she takes them as far as she can. The kids love her, and she loves the kids."

"Connie has always been a positive influence," said Catherine Weaver, Primary School Principal. "She has never backed down from a challenge, never got upset or bent out of shape, and is never ruffled over changes. She has been a calm, constant presence."

Weaver said she has bragged about Christen in educational circles for not being the stereotypical teacher who pulls out the same lesson plans year after year.

"She has always been out on the edge and up front to try new things and learning new things," Weaver said. "She is extremely resourceful and experienced. When everyone panics about new things, she is a wealth of information, resources and methodology on what to do. "

Christen decided to go into retirement to spend more time with family and to be available when they needed her. She plans to substitute and be more involved with volunteer activities at church. However, her last year is not affecting how she is looking at her students.

"This year doesn't change with me leaving," she said. "There's always only one chance with any kid. Every year has new challenges.

"My philosophy has always been that this is a public school. I take each kid where they are at and move them as far as they can go."

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