Three to grow on Lawton bids adieu to valued mentors

Lawton Elementary School will be losing 94 years' worth of combined teaching experience as they say goodbye to two teachers and a principal this year. The replacements have arrived, and it will be ABCs and 123s as usual come fall, but the presence of these three educators is sure to be missed.

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

They 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," McKinney recalled, "one of the kids said to me, 'Mrs. McKinney, your eyes are swimming.'"

Half a world away

Born in 1939 in the Philippines, Flor Gonio didn't always want to be a teacher. Early on, she envisioned herself seated in front of a piano, learning scales as she worked her way toward becoming a concert pianist. But due to a then-failing national economy, her family simply couldn't afford the luxury of sending their daughter to a piano teacher. As she cast around for what to do with her life, her older brother, a teacher himself, suggested she take a crack at teaching. She did, and hasn't looked back since.

"I don't have any regrets. I am very happy that I chose to be a teacher," she said. "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 taught in the Philippines for 16 years at various private Catholic schools, but eventually decided that there might be "greener pastures" in the United States. She immigrated in 1978, once again following in the footsteps of her brother, who had moved to the Midwest several years earlier. But instead of heading to the Plains states, she stopped in Seattle and began looking for work.

After two years of bouncing around King County School District as a bilingual instructor's assistant, she received her certification to teach. In 1980 she was hired as a full-time classroom teacher at Lawton Elementary.

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

Looking back, she hopes to be remembered for creating both high test scores and, perhaps more importantly to her, good people. "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 is espe- cially proud of her second-grade classroom this year. Each year, a district-wide reading aptitude test is given twice, once in fall and once in spring. Last fall several of her stu-dents failed to pass, but this spring everyone in her class passed with flying colors.

Looking ahead, the 64-year-old - the only one of the three retirees in forced retirement - is happy to spend her time on herself and her own family. With the rigors and time restraints of a teacher, she's seen her two grandchildren, who live a mere 20 minutes north in Lake Forest Park, only at holidays and on special occasions. Now she'll get the chance to be the grandmother she's wanted to be, going whenever the mood strikes her.

As for being a teacher, she'll pass the baton but wants to stay involved in helping people. She plans on volunteering her time to church groups and organizations devoted to aiding the homeless.

Whatever she does, the longtime Magnolia resident is sure to bump into her former students occasionally. "It's so gratifying and enriching and fulfilling to see that ... they recognize you," she 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 has always viewed her classroom, and the school at large, as a family. Having grown up on a farm in Dow City, Iowa - pop. 350 at the time - McKinney recalls her teachers not as disciplinarians in the classroom but as neighbors and friends in her community. Ingrained from an early age that teachers, too, are people, she brought that ethic with her to the big city in 1973. After 12 years teaching at Sanislo Elementary in the South End, she came to Lawton and has been in Magnolia ever since - 19 years.

Several years ago, President Clinton suggested that the average adult could expect to change careers no fewer than six times during a lifetime. Clearly, he wasn't talking about Carol McKinney. One wonders what's so appealing about teaching a multi-age classroom of kindergarten and first grade that would keep a person interested for more than three decades. McKinney says she could see the impact she was having, and that kept her going.

"I stayed in it because I saw that I could make a difference," she said, "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."

Her favorite thing, and what's kept her in the kindergarten-first-grade range, is the innocence of the students. At that age, she says, they haven't "learned the tricks" that adults and teenagers seem to develop. "They [5- and 6-year-olds] are honest, and that's what I appreciate about them," she said. "Too bad we don't maintain that."

McKinney loves teaching. Part of the payoff for her is that she gets to learn from her students as much as she teaches. Coming from a small town, she says, she got hardly any exposure to different viewpoints or other cultures. In Seattle her students, according to her, have taught her volumes about other cultures, ethnicities and special needs. The kids, it seems, have worked to give her a broader worldview.

"It's made me a better person," she claimed. "A much better person."

At just age 59, McKinney is stepping out a little earlier than some others would. But after 29 years in the business she made herself a promise that by the time she turned 60, she would be retired from teaching and have moved on to her next career.

"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. She's already taken steps to get her business off the ground, having opened a greeting- and notecard shop called Colors In Water. She'll spend the majority of her time producing watercolors of floral scenes to decorate the cards with.

She won't be entirely out of the classroom. Substitute teaching isn't in the picture, but she does want to stay in touch with her friends at Lawton and provide them with a helping hand when they need it. She also wants to stay active with the kids, to drop in every now and again to read stories to them - one of her favorite parts of the job.

Whether wielding a paintbrush or a storybook, McKinney is facing the next phase of her life with excitement, considering the unknowns in front of her. "The other thing I've learned from my kids [in the classroom] is to respect the fact that you sit back and you can't know everything all of the time," she said. "And it's always a learning time, and not to be afraid of it."

Being a teacher has taught her that.

Changing of the guard

Sylvia Hayden didn't plan on leaving Lawton after only two years. With 25 years in education, she's the youngest of the three taking leave this summer from Magnolia school system. She had intended to stay on another 10 years, but life doesn't always go according to plan.

Five years ago Hayden was involved in a car accident that left her with back injuries and chronic pain. She dealt with the problem until about a year ago, when the pain got so bad that it began robbing her of the stamina it took to do her job as principal of an elementary school effectively.

She says the school district bent over backwards to accommodate her condition, even going the extra mile of employing her on a four-day-work-week basis. In the end, however, her doctor told her that chances of a full or partial recovery were minimal should she continue working. So after two seasons presiding over the administration at Lawton, she's turning the reigns over to her replacement, Ed Noh.

She regrets having to leave prematurely, yet "I feel so comfortable with Ed now. Although I just met him when he was hired here," she said, "I 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 - it's like a passage. It's the next generation taking over."

It wasn't so long ago that Hayden herself was the new kid on the block. She spent nine years as a teacher, in and around Seattle. Then, during a stint on a local parents and teachers committee, she was given the opportunity to get outside the classroom and see what it was that made a school tick. After a taste of involvement on a more administrative level, she was hooked on the idea of becoming a principal.

She says she was very lucky to have had 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," she said.

The leap from classroom to head office was an adjustment, but ac- cording to Hayden, not all that different from what she had been doing before.

"You're still a teacher - you just teach at a different level," she explained. "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."

After a quarter-century Hayden looks back on her career with pride. What she's most proud of is that the things people are thanking her for are the things she's most passionate about: kids. She hopes that what she's leaving behind is an environment that is more intent on "cherishing children" than educating them. She feels that if a child is made to feel loved and accepted, then the learning will follow naturally.

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

Instead, she'll content herself by tutoring kids in reading as a volunteer or just coming to school and reading to the kids for the pleasure of it. One way or another, she'll stay in touch "with kids forever, they're my passion," she said.

Looking back on her two short years of molding young minds at Lawton, she has only good things to say on the way out. "I think the Magnolia schools are doing a great job for their kids. Teachers deeply care and are very skilled at what they're doing." The community "just needs to continue to support their schools," she said.

"Because the kids need the best. [Families] 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."

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