Fond farewell: Three retiring educators leave a legacy of excellence at Lawton

Lawton Elementary School lost 94 years worth of combined teaching experience when they said goodbye this year to two teachers and a principal. The replacements have arrived and it will be ABCs and 123s as usual come fall, but the absence of the three educators is sure to be noticed when the bell rings next September.

Two weeks ago, Flor Gonio, Carol McKinney and Sylvia Hayden were ceremoniously pulled out of their classrooms or offices. The three educators were led to the gymnasium, where they were greeted by former students, parents and colleagues for a farewell tribute. Accompanied by hugs and tears, the three retirees were treated to speeches from parents and remembrances from former students.

Gonio, McKinney and Hayden were given stone pavers etched with their names, to be placed in the school's secret garden. In addition, the Washington State PTA gave both Gonio and McKinney outstanding education and leadership awards.

"As we were walking out, one of the kids said to me, 'Mrs. McKinney, your eyes are swimming,'" McKinney recalled.

Half a world away

Born in 1939 in the Philippines, Flor Gonio didn't always want to be a teacher. In fact, her ambition was to be taught. Early on, she envisioned herself seated in front of a piano, learning scales as she worked her way toward becoming a concert pianist.

However, due to a then-failing national economy, her family simply couldn't afford the luxury of sending their daughter to a piano teacher. Casting around for what she would do with her life, her older brother, a teacher himself, suggested she take a crack at education. She did, and hasn't looked back since.

One might be inclined to think that giving up on fame and fortune as a musician for the struggling wages of an educator would be a difficult pill to swallow, but Gonio sees it differently.

"I don't have any regrets," Gonio said. "I am very happy that I chose to be a teacher. I was lucky enough to have had very good instructors and teachers in my country that I was given the impression that to be a teacher you are forming the character and the minds of the students.

"You are a very, very good influence, and so of course I have no regrets," she added.

She taught in the Philippines for 16 years at various private catholic schools. Gonio eventually decided that things might be better elsewhere; she immigrated to the United States in 1978 "looking for greener pastures," once again following in the footsteps of her brother who had moved to the Midwest several years ahead of her. But instead of heading to the plains states, Gonio stopped in Seattle and immediately began looking for work.

After two years of bouncing around the King County school district as a bilingual instructor's assistant, she received her teaching certificate. She was hired in 1980 as a full-time classroom teacher at Lawton.

For the past 24 years Gonio has been, by her own account, "sticking to the basics" - teaching kids while also doing her best to instill in her students a sense of values. A passionate proponent of reading aloud to students, Gonio said she has tried always to extract from the material a sense of the bigger picture, in terms of respect for others, kindness and generosity.

Looking back, she said she hopes to be remembered for creating both high test-scores and, perhaps more importantly, good citizens.

"In my own small way, I'm trying to help the students become good citizens of our country," she said.

As for test scores, she said she is especially proud of her second-grade classroom this year. Each year, a district-wide reading aptitude test is given - once in the fall and once in the spring. Last fall, several of her students failed to pass, but this spring everyone passed with flying colors.

Looking ahead, the 64-year-old retiree said she will be happy to dedicate her time to herself and her family. With the rigors and time restraints of teaching, she only gets to see her two grandchildren - who live twenty minutes north in Lake Forest Park - a few times a year. Now Gonio says she'll finally get the chance to be the grandmother she's always wanted to be, visiting her grandchildren whenever the mood strikes her.

Gonio said she'll pass her teacher's baton to the next generation but wants to stay involved in helping people. She plans on volunteering with church groups and organizations devoted to assisting the homeless.

Whatever she does, the long-time Magnolia resident is certain to bump into her former students once in a while.

"It's so gratifying and enriching and fulfilling to see that... they recognize you," Gonio said. "They don't forget you and that's what money can't buy. That's the gratification, the consolation a teacher gets, that's it. It's touching, very, very touching."

Just a small-town girl

Carol McKinney said she has always viewed her classroom, as well as the school at large, as a family.

Growing up on a farm in Dow City, Iowa - population 350 - McKinney recalled her teachers not as disciplinarians but as neighbors and friends in her community. It was therefore ingrained in her from an early age that teachers are people, too, and she brought that ethic with her to the big city. She landed in Seattle in 1973, beginning teaching at Sanislo Elementary in the south end of the city. After 12 years at Sanislo, where she's been teaching for the past 19 years.

"I grew up thinking that a school should be a community, a family," McKinney said, "and that's how I look at what I do with children and parents."

Several years ago, former President Bill Clinton suggested that the average adult could expect to change careers no less than six times during her life. Clearly, he wasn't talking about McKinney. After 31 years teaching a multi-age classroom of kindergarten and first grade students, one wonders what held her for more than three decades. McKinney said one of the most attractive aspects of teaching is that she can see the impact she's having on students. She said that, perhaps more than any other aspect, is what's kept her around all these many years.

"I stayed in it because I saw that I could make a difference," McKinney said. "I stayed in it because it's one of those things, each summer you're revitalized and you're ready to go back and give things to children that will help them deal with life."

McKinney said it's the innocence of the Kindergarten and first grade students that has kept her so excited about teaching. At that age, she said, kids haven't yet "learned the tricks" that many teenagers use to hide the truth or avoid schoolwork.

"They are honest, and that's what I appreciate about them," she said. "Too bad we don't maintain that."

McKinney said one of the great rewards of teaching is the give and take, in that she, as an educator, also learns from her students. Coming from a small town, she said she lacked exposure to different viewpoints or cultures. Since coming to Seattle, she said her students have opened her eyes to other cultures and ethnicities. The kids, it seems, have expanded her view of the world.

"It's made me a better person," McKinney said. "It's made me a much better person."

At just 59 years old, McKinney is stepping out a little early. She said that long ago she made herself a promise that, by the time she turned 60 - she's been teaching for 29 years - she would be retired from teaching.

"I wanted to pursue another love of my life, so it's just time to do it," she explained.

That love turns out to be painting watercolors. McKinney has already opened a greeting and note card shop called Colors In Water. She said she'll spend the majority of her time producing watercolors of floral scenes to decorate the cards.

However, she won't be entirely removed from the classroom. Although she won't be substitute teaching, McKinney said she does want to stay in touch with her friends at Lawton and provide them with a helping hand when needed. She said she also hopes to drop in every now and again to read stories to students - one of her favorite parts of the job.

Regardless of whether she's wielding a paintbrush or a storybook, McKinney is facing the unknowns with excitement. Not knowing is part of life, she said, a truth she learned in her years as a teacher.

"The other thing I've learned from my kids is to respect the fact that you sit back and you can't know everything all of the time," McKinney said. "And it's always a learning time and not to be afraid of it."

Changing of the guard

Sylvia Hayden said she didn't plan on leaving Lawton after only two years. After a quarter of a century in education, she's the youngest among the three educators taking leave this summer. Hayden said she had intended to stay on another 10 years, taking a normally scheduled retirement.

But life doesn't always go according to plan. Five years ago Hayden injured herself in a car accident, and she now suffers from chronic pain. She said she dealt with the problem until about a year ago, when the pain became so unbearable that it began robbing her of the stamina required of an elementary school principal. She said the school district bent over backwards to accommodate her condition; she was allowed to cut down to a four-day work week.

In the end, however, Hayden's doctor told her that, should she continue working, her chances for a full or even partial recovery were minimal. So after two seasons presiding over the administration at Lawton, she's turning the reigns over to her replacement, Ed Noh.

While McKinney said she regrets having to leave prematurely, she's confident Noh will make an excellent principal.

"I feel so comfortable with Ed now, although I just met him when he was hired here," she said. "I just feel like I've known him forever and I know he's going to carry on what I consider my work. We have the same priorities for kids and for good teaching and for collaboration with parents.

"So it isn't like a shock," she added. "It's like a passage. It's the next generation taking over."

It wasn't so long ago Hayden herself was the new kid on the block. She first spent nine years as a teacher in and around the Seattle area. Then, during a stint on a local parents and teachers committee, Hayden was given the opportunity to take a look at the bigger picture, going outside the classroom and seeing what it was that made a school tick.

She got a taste of the admistrative side of education, and became hooked on the idea of working as a principal. She said she was fortunate in her career to have encountered some terrific role models.

"I'd had a couple of principals who had been truly remarkable leaders, and I thought if I could provide that kind of leadership for a school, that would be pretty exciting," Hayden said.

The leap from classroom to head office was an adjustment, Hayden said, though she added that it wasn't all that different from what she had been doing before.

"You're still a teacher, you just teach at a different level," she said. "You're teaching teachers how to work in their classrooms, you're teaching parents maybe some parenting skills and I believe that you're always teaching the kids."

Hayden said she looks back on her 25-year career with a great deal of pride. She said that as she's been in the process of leaving -in the works since last April - the things people are thanking her for happen to be the things she's most passionate about: namely, kids. She said she hopes her legacy includes fostering an environment that is more geared toward "cherishing children" than educating them. If a child is made to feel loved and accepted, Hayden said, the learning will follow naturally.

Kids have been the focus of her life, she said, and that will continue to be her focus in retirement. She said she plans on staying involved in education on some level, although probably not in a teacher's role. The school district has offered her a principal's position in a year, should she be up to the challenge, though she said she's all but declined the offer for fear of re-injuring her back.

Instead, Hayden said she'll volunteer as reading tutor, or by just coming to school and reading to the kids for the pleasure of it.

One way or another, Hayden said she'll stay in touch "with kids forever, they're my passion," she said.

Aside from imparting the philosophies of Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss to rapt audiences of little kids, Hayden said she plans on spending time honing her skills as a new grandmother as well as practicing gardening and quilting.

She said she's proud of her work as an educator, and thanks the Magnolia community for their commitment to young students. Looking back on her two, short years at Lawton, she has only good things to say about the school.

"I think the Magnolia schools are doing a great job for their kids," she said. "Teachers deeply care and are very skilled at what they're doing and they just need to continue to support their schools.

"Because the kids need the best," Hayden continued, "and they need to stay in partnership with their schools, because their voice is just as important as the teacher's voice and the principal's voice for a school to be a really strong community and kids need every advocate they can get."[[In-content Ad]]