27-year Southwest preschool teacher retires
Diane Craig: 'Preschool was my niche'
On May 18, the dismissal bell rang for the last time for Southwest School Preschool Teacher Diane Craig, who is retiring after a combined total of 27 years of teaching.
"Wow, this is really it," Craig said at the conclusion of her last day.
That morning, Craig had taken down items and mementos from the walls of her classroom, as she had so many times before on the last day before summer break. But, this time, it was different.
"A lot of stuff I threw away because it's not significant anymore," she said. "It's almost like part of what you did for so many years is gone, but yet after you retire, you can replace those memories with something else."
Craig said she felt a sense of relief, but it was a good feeling, like a sense of fulfillment.
"I think I'm reluctant to leave, but yet I feel confident leaving it in the hands of someone else," she said. "Education was never a burden. The years go by quickly and its like, one day you're there, then, how did it all happen?
I think the best moment was knowing I found something I really enjoyed, and that was being a preschool teacher."
Craig's career started when she got her bachelor's of education from Drury University in Springfield. Over her career, Craig taught a combination of elementary education, early education and special education at Lewisburg, Monett, Cassville, Exeter and Southwest school districts.
In 1984, Craig and her husband, Jim, moved to Cassville with their youngest son, then 15 months old, to purchase and run the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The Craigs settled in Cassville, raising three boys and later operating Western Auto, Radio Shack, and Penny's stores. From 2001-2007, Craig's husband Jim became mayor of Cassville.
After teaching elementary education for several years, Craig said she came to a point where she needed a change.
In 1999, she began teaching at Southwest Schools, where she initially taught kindergarten for three years, then taught 12 years in early childhood, special education and Title 1 programs.
"I felt like I needed a different avenue or different approach to education and different age group," she said. "An opportunity came open at Southwest Schools for the preschool, and I thought, that's something I'd really like to do."
Craig said she felt like she had found her calling.
"I kind of found my niche in preschool," she said. "I'm very caring and very patient, and I've had a good rapport with the parents."
Craig said Title 1 is a government-funded program for children who need an extra boost learning things like letters, numbers and how to socialize.
"There's a real need for programs like this," she said. "Our federal government supports the programs."
In this setting, children with disabilities are mixed in with children without disabilities. She has taught children with a variety of disabilities, some of which include visual and hearing-impaired and autism.
When said the key to teaching both groups at the same time was integration.
"We've found that children with special needs really tend to fit in with other children," she said. "I think blending children with special needs with those without special needs has really been good for both groups of children because it provides good role models for those with special needs. Children at this age are also very empathetic and caring, so it has been really beneficial for both."
Although not always easy, teaching special education has been good, Craig said.
"It's been very rewarding for me to get help from outside sources for frustrated parents to help them in the home with their special needs children, like someone who is trained and will come into the home to help with dressing, hygiene and a schedule," she said.
Craig said some of the parents needed a lot of guidance as to how to direct their children and how to get help, such as helping their children with dressing and feeding.
Another rewarding aspect of her career, Craig said, was witnessing children learn and develop.
"Some when they first came didn't speak very well," she said. "But, by just being exposed to other children, doing language and speech therapy, and coming to preschool, their speech improved within the year."
During tougher times, such as when she had students with emotional challenges, Craig turned to her colleagues for support.
"You have to learn how to be caring and learn how to address these issues," she said.
She credits her colleagues, aides, director, principals and father for helping her, including one aide she had for 10 years.
"We worked well as a team together," she said. "I think your success to a preschool program is to have someone you can really work with well, that shares the importance of being nurturing to children.
"My Special Education Director Wanda Smith was very supportive of the program. She encouraged me to get fully certified to teach both groups."
So, Craig returned to school at Missouri State University in Springfield and took 17 hours to become preschool certified, which took about two years.
"I had a principal named Judy Randall who was very supportive, too," she said. "And, my principal this year, Mr. Jeff Payne, has also been very supportive and positive. I will miss faculty and staff."
Southwest Elementary Principal Jeff Payne said he could see that the children were always at the center of her focus.
"She had a heart for the kids and really everything she did at the school was for the better of our kids," he said. "She really provided a great service and touched a lot of lives. I know kids still come back and want to see her. She made a huge impact on the community."
Along with supportive staff, Craig credits her father, who was also an elementary teacher, for her success as a teacher.
"I had the passion and interest in being an elementary teacher because I was around it growing up," she said. "I credit my father because of his wonderful personality and being a super human being. My dad was a very caring, giving person with good ideals, goals, and so a lot of what he told me I modeled for myself and I have used and reflected upon in my personal life and teaching.
"Teaching just runs in the family, as Craig also had a grandmother and great-grandmother who were elementary teachers."
One funny memory, Craig recalled was when one of her students, a little boy, ran out of the classroom and down the hallway.
"His mom caught him before he ran out the front door," she recalled. "She was a fast runner, I couldn't catch him."
One not so funny memory she recalls is when she got her finger slammed in the door accidentally by a student.
Craig said something she always enjoyed in her classroom were siblings. She especially remembered once when she had all four siblings of one family in preschool.
"One family had a set of four-year old twins, then a few years later, I had their sister," she said.
She said she also enjoyed interacting with the parents.
"Being able to talk to the parents and have a good rapport with them has been good, " she said. "I've had parents say they will miss me and are sorry that their youngest children can't come to my preschool class."
After being devoted to teaching children for so long, Craig said her retirement plans consist of visiting her mother, sisters, three sons, daughters-in-law and her six grandchildren.
She would also like to do some volunteering, get together with former colleagues, and get involved in personal fitness, incorporating some yoga, walking, and reading.
Craig said the best advice she could give other elementary, special education and preschool teachers is to have a positive approach, and if they need support, talk to their fellow teachers and principal for ideas and ways to do their job better.
Another bit of advice she offered was to help facilitate a love for school and cultivate a sense of self-worth.
"If you set a tone for those children that they like school and feel good about it, that they have a sense of self-worth and responsibility, they will be able to carry that through life and be caring and supportive to help one another," she said. "A lot of them may not understand how to do those things."
Payne said it is tough to replace those who has served and given their lives for education.
"All we can do is bring in teachers that we feel have the same passion and as they go through life will keep that passion as she did," he said.
As Craig finished her last day of teaching, wrapping up 27 years of service, she said she felt great and was ready to focus on herself now.
"It's like you've given yourself so many years to help children benefit, from socialization, learning how to share, and so on, and it's like I have time for myself now," she said. "I feel like it's time to have time for myself. "
As the last day of school before summer break came to a close, and her last day as a preschool teacher, Craig helped her students gather their belongings, prepare to get on the bus, and say goodbye, singing "Goodbye Friends" to the melody of the French childhood song, "Frere Jacques."
"Thank you friends for helping, thank you friends for helping, Love you so, love you so."