In Karen Garland’s classroom, the motto was, “once a Garland darling, always a Garland darling.”
After several decades in the classroom, the Garland darlings are a vast group, and last month, several sent videos or made posters for a drive-thru goodbye parade to congratulate their kindergarten teacher on her retirement. The outpouring highlighted the imprint Garland left on her students, coworkers and the Albemarle County school division.
“That’s been loving and humbling,” she said. “Because I’m hearing from teachers and former student teachers and families. They’re just saying things that I didn’t realize like how much I affected them and the impact on the community. And I’m like, ‘I was just teaching. I was doing what I enjoy doing.’”
Garland has taught kindergarten — and only kindergarten — at Mountain View Elementary since the school opened in 1990. Over the years, students have become more tech savvy and the building has grown, but some things never changed. She always strove to be a positive and loving teacher and the youngsters could always be counted on to say something ridiculous.
After 40 years, Garland decided to retire when the division moved to start in-person classes for preschoolers through third-graders. She had requested to continue teaching virtually, which was granted, but the uncertainty about how that might look led her to retire.
Throughout her career, Garland mentored many new teachers, took on many of the division’s different initiatives from Responsive Classroom to Culturally Responsive Teaching, and her classroom became a place for other teachers and administrators to learn from her.
“I told her one time that she has impacted and had an influence on more people than she will ever know,” said Lisa “DeeDee” Jones, a former principal at Mountain View, adding that when Garland told you to do something, you should do it. “… Because Karen’s not going to tell you the wrong thing; it’s like the highest level of compliment that you could get.”
Retiring in the middle of the school year wasn’t Garland’s plan.
“I was still full of energy and raring to go, not sitting there just collecting a paycheck,” she said.
If the division had stayed in Stage Two of its reopening plan, she’d still be teaching, Garland said. Her retirement was effective Nov. 30, and she had a weekend to make the final decision.
Garland expects more teachers will be in her position if the School Board decides next month to go to Stage Four. Under that stage, all students would have the option for in-person classes as part of a hybrid learning plan.
“If the county had stayed in Stage Two, I would still be there,” she said. “I would not have been forced to make my lifetime decision in three days — and granted, it’s 40 years — but it’s my 40 years to decide when I want to come out, or how long I wanted to stay. So that part I can speak on behalf of others because I’m not the only one in this situation.”
Garland added that she didn’t think the division would’ve changed stages until January in order to get through Thanksgiving and winter breaks when families might be traveling or visiting other people.
Since the School Board voted in mid-October to progress to Stage Three, 10 employees have retired, resigned or gone on leave without pay, according to board documents. This school year, a total of 15 employees have retired, 30 have resigned and 19 are on leave without pay. This time last year, five had retired, 18 resigned and 14 were on leave without pay.
Overall, 47 teachers retired from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, compared to 33 the previous year, according to the county’s human resources department annual report. Department staff said in the report that they believe the increase in retirements is because of the pandemic.
More details about what Stage Four could look like will be revealed at the board’s meeting this Thursday. Schools Superintendent Matt Haas will make his recommendation Jan. 14.
‘A bright light’
Garland had wanted to become a teacher since she played school with her sister and cousins when they were kids. Her sister knew she wanted to be a teacher and would practice with Garland and the cousins.
Her career plans solidified in the second grade after she had a bad experience in first grade.
“When I was in first grade, I had a teacher and I was really scared of her,” she said. “I woke up during the middle of the night, and I had a nervous stomach. In second grade, I said, ‘I’m going to be a teacher, and my students are not going to be scared of me. I’m going to make it a place where it’s going to be a place of learning and fun. And we’re going to be relaxed and feel safe.’ And that’s always the way I ran my classroom.”
She eventually started teaching second and third grade in Waynesboro, her hometown. She moved to Albemarle County in 1988 and taught at Rose Hill Elementary while the school now known as Mountain View was being built.
Garland was one of the first people Jones met at Mountain View; she started as principal in 2007 and moved to a division-level job in 2019.
“Karen’s a person who I would say shines a really bright light that you are drawn to her, and her light is always shining,” she said. “Every single person that she’s with — a parent, student, colleague, friend — she makes everyone feel special, like you’re important, and that you matter, and that your conversation matters. And that that’s just a gift.”
Jones said Garland’s enthusiasm for teaching and learning was contagious and that she learned a lot by watching Garland teach.
“She was actually an early adopter of everything that I can think of that was ever implemented,” Jones said.
Shortly into the school year, Jones said Garland would invite her to her class to show off how well her students were doing.
“And she never lost that ‘we’re super special’ feeling with the kids all 180 days,” she said. “She made every day special. Every day was a day to celebrate. Today is another great day. Every day is just amazing. And if I needed a lift or a pick me up, that’s where I would go.”
Kindergarten teachers are a unique group, Jones said.
“They’re amazing, and she’s done that for 40 years,” she said. “It’s part of who she is, so I really can’t imagine her not doing it.”
In Garland’s classroom, students wouldn’t get in trouble. Rather, they would keep working on behaviors until they learned. Garland said a key to her style of classroom management was to start by setting strong expectations and concentrating on what school looks like.
“We just had a well-run classroom with a lot of love and expectation and good management going on,” she said. “And it was fun.”
Garland said that her favorite part of teaching was building relationships with her students and their families, which was also critical to her success in the classroom.
“You get children coming in, and these are people’s babies,” she said. “ … They want to know their child is going to be cared for.”
Those bonds continue even when her students leave her classroom. Two former students, who are now 27 years old, sent her a video to congratulate her on retiring.
She also keeps track of them during their schooling, even knowing when they were graduating, Jones said.
“They’re Garland darlings forever,” Jones said. “I have met kids who I’ve run into later, they’re like, I’m part of Garland darlings and 25 years old. They still remember because she makes that very first year really special.”
Six years ago, Garland started teaching a dual-language immersion class as part of a new program at Mountain View that has since expanded to other schools. As part of the program students learn in Spanish for half of the day and English in the other half.
“I felt like a brand new teacher,” Garland said. “… One classroom of 40 children, and it just opened up a new world of excitement for me.”
She had two good teaching partners during those six years, which was the icing on the cake, she said.
“That was hard to say goodbye to,” Garland said.
Mary Batres, a teacher at Mountain View, has taught the immersion class with Garland for the last two years. The two teamed up to read their students bedtime stories over Zoom after schools closed in March.
“Knowing that Karen was there, and that these kids were also learning from Karen is just a game changer; she is so unique and special,” she said.
Batres student taught with Garland in 2010, and she considers Garland a mentor and best friend.
“She’s a master teacher for sure, and I didn’t know that at the time,” she said. “But when I started student teaching with her, I knew that she was different from any other teacher that I student taught with or any other teacher that I’d seen from the way she talks to the kids and the way the kids listen and respect her, and how much they learn.”
Batres tried to soak up as much as possible from Garland and then implement those lessons in her own classroom.
From Garland, Batres learned to always stay positive when talking with students.
“A big thing with Karen is telling kids what they need to do, as opposed to what they need to not do,” Batres said. “Because a lot of kids only hear the negative, and they don’t really understand what they do need to do, especially in kindergarten. So that was a huge takeaway that I got from Karen.”
Batres admired how Garland went all-in on the various initiatives launched over the years.
“But the beauty of that is that she melts everything that she learns into her own Karen Garland style,” Batres said. “So she just keeps getting better and better and better, every step along the way, and you can’t replace that. There’s nothing else that anyone could do to replicate what Karen does. It’s a big loss for us, for sure.”
She added, “I just hope I can be half the teacher that she is because she’s the best.”