Heading home: Retiring after 40 years, Carlson has worked in four elementaries

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Retiring Cooper Elementary School teacher Patty Carlson looks over a pointer made from a colorful flip flop that was a gift from another teacher. Carlson gave the pointer to one of her teacher friends so it will remain in the building.

When retiring Cooper Elementary School K-4 reading teacher Patty Carlson walked into her first classroom 40 years ago at Hillcrest Elementary School, there was pretty much nothing there for the freshly minted teacher.

“I had a completely empty room,” she said.

Her first year’s assignment was to take half the students from a class that was being split.

She didn’t get a lot of time, either.

“The district gave me two days to acquaint myself with the teachers manual,” she said. “On the third day half the students pushed their desks across the hall. That was my new class.”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Retiring Cooper Elementary reading teacher Patty Carlson gets a laugh from an Iowa State pendant and toy pompoms she found while cleaning out her room. They were used in the past on one of her bulletin boards.

That was in 1978.

Carlson has spent time at the old Butler Elementary. Riverside and Duncombe were stops, too.

She finally landed at Cooper — 14 years ago.

“Cooper was the winner for the most years,” she said.

She has 36 years of teaching to her credit during her 40 year career. She took time off a few times when she was starting her family.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Retiring Cooper Elementary School reading teacher Patty Carlson goes through a box of materials in her classroom Wednesday.

As a long time educator, she’s had the experience of having the children of her former students in her class.

“One of the daughters of a former student resembled her mom so much I called her by her mom’s name,” Carlson said. “She called me on it, too.”

She also enjoys now grown former students recognizing her, even if she doesn’t always.

“I do like when the kids will recognize me and initiate a conversation,” she said. “They change a lot from first, second and third grade. Often I don’t recognize them at first.”

That recognition can occur in unexpected places.

“The dental hygienist asked me do you remember me,” she said. “I was in a position where I was hoping she was nice to me.”

One added bonus: some of her former students ended up down the hall.

“Some of my students are now my colleagues,” she said. “I don’t take credit for that.”

While she may have inspired a few to pursue teaching, the desire to take up the calling isn’t always about the student wanting to teach.

“I was asking the students once what they wanted to be.” she said. “One said ‘I want to be a teacher just like you.’ I inquired further and his reply was ‘because I can get pop out of the teachers lounge.’ That kind of burst my bubble.”

Carlson has seen many changes in the education system and society since she began her career.

“I look at education as a pendulum,” she said. “It swings left, it swings right. The longer you’re involved, the more swings there are.”

She’s seen a change, along with a constant, in the parents, too.

“Parents want the best for their kids,” she said. “What they view as best has changed.”

Public perception of the profession has changed, too.

“It used to be a very well regarded,” she said. “Sometimes now people want to place blame where it doesn’t necessarily belong.”

Teachers who spend any amount of time in the profession tend to accumulate a lot of “teacher stuff.”

Only part of Carlson’s lifelong collection was actually in her room.

“Because I changed buildings it’s not all here,” she said. “A lot of it is at home.”

Some of her collection, is going home with her, some of it, the “Expired Treasures,” will find a permanent home in the trash can, and some of it will get passed onto other teachers.

She too had a few items in her room from other retired teachers and like most dedicated teachers, much of the books and other materials, were paid for out of her own pocket.

She’s also ended up with a nice collection of the traditional first day teachers gift, an apple.

“Not only the edible kind but also ceramic, ornaments and mugs with apples on them.” she said.

Those have all gone home with her. She’s keeping them.

“They are hard to part with,” she said.

Some of those expired treasures that she threw away, she’s still wondering about them.

“There were things I moved from Duncombe that resurfaced,” she said. “For the life of me I could not remember why I thought it was important.”

She said she’s going to miss both the students and the staff.

“It’s about 50/50 really,” she said.

The staff in a school often becomes much more than just co-workers. They become more like family. For Carlson, this has been the case during her time at Cooper and the other schools.

“They got invited to all the graduation parties for my own kids,” she said. “That’s for putting up with me talking about them all the time.”

It’s also not a job, it’s a calling.

“It’s not a 9 to 5 job or a 9 to 5 life.” she said.

When she began her career, she didn’t know if it was really what she wanted to do.

“I never found anything I’d rather do,” she said. “There’s nothing that would bring as much satisfaction. Every day was different — regardless of what I had written for a lesson plan — each day was different.”

Carlson has accepted what she calls a “very part-time” position at Iowa Central Community College to teach in the HiSET program where students earn their High School Equivalency.

She isn’t ready to give up teaching entirely.

“Not yet,” she said. “That will be a good transition. I don’t have to go cold turkey.”