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Murray Journal

Students cheer first-grade educator who retires after teaching in the same classroom 28 years

Jun 29, 2020 11:03AM ● By Julie Slama

In 1992, Kathy Reynolds began teaching in her first-grade classroom and never changed classrooms during her 28-year career at McMillan Elementary, but with the “soft closure” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of saying goodbye and happy retirement, she got one last “Hip, Hip, Hooray” from her current and former students. (Teresa Bigelow/McMillan Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Kathy Reynolds was hired and told by then McMillan Principal Beck Sheffield she would be a first-grade teacher. On Aug. 17, 1992, Reynolds walked into the first grade room at McMillan Elementary, thinking she’d switch to third grade after a year and prove him wrong.

Twenty-eight years later as she took down photographs from that same first-grade classroom, she admits he was right.

“I never had the desire to move and never thought about it since,” she said. “There’s something magical about first grade.”

Reynolds, who is retiring, also had no thoughts about changing schools or school districts. 

“I’ve been so lucky. I never had a bad class. Kids who were known to be hard to handle, came in and got to work. They lived up to the classroom slogan, ‘be the best you can be,’” she said.

Former Jordan School District Principal Kirk Denison said a career in the same school is rare.

“That’s incredible to be in the same building all the years of a teaching career; it’s just amazing,” he said.

Reynolds’ education career brought in her love of theater, her 17 years as a children’s and young adult librarian at Murray Public Library, and her passion of running.

“I always said, ‘if everyone loves to read and run, I’ll be a success,’” she said.

Reynolds began the school’s Fit Fun Run 25 years ago. Traditionally, students write a goal to run 1, 2 or 3 miles and train for the run and most years, Reynolds, herself an accomplished runner who has run more than 50 marathons, would keep pace right alongside her students. 

This year, with the “soft closure” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the run looked a little different—but it was still held. 

“We challenged the students to run 10,000 miles in two weeks and they just took off, joined by parents, cats, dogs, and grandparents. I think it was something the whole family could do, to divert their attention from what was going on and have a goal they could achieve,” she said.

Another long-standing tradition at McMillan that Reynolds has been a part of is the first-grade performance of “The Nutcracker.” Former first-grade teacher Joyce Standley had found the children’s version in a 1976 Women’s Day magazine and approached Reynolds to produce the play.

Reynolds recalled her first reaction.

“My first thoughts were ‘oh my, look at this bedraggled magazine that she kept all these years. But we did it that year. We stuck our necks out and used the magazine’s idea of cardboard boxes as trees and thrones and thought, ‘there’s magic in this program,’” she said, adding that that first year, 1992, the entire student body gave the first-graders a standing ovation. 

She thought ‘that was great and our turn for the annual holiday program was done for the next six years.’ However, that didn’t happen and instead, the 28-year “Nutcracker” performances continued, thanks to the dedication of students, teachers and volunteers who have worked alongside Reynolds.

“‘The Nutcracker’ is the biggest thing our school does and it’s always a memory for these students. I’ve run into the kids 20 years later and they say, ‘I was a Russian’ or ‘I was a soldier.’ They remember. This has been the most incredible thing,” Reynolds said.

That is aside from learning to read in her classroom. While she has been known to retell her stories of Briar Rabbit from her library days, she never had a set reader to introduce students to reading.

“I never taught the same. I looked at the climate of the class and taught to the kids’ ability and built upon that. They had expectations and I had them reach those and go beyond,” she said.

When she started teaching, Sheffield told her she may not be able to reach all her students, Reynolds recalled.

“He said, ‘sometimes, there will be kids you cannot teach, but you can still love them,’” she said. “That wasn’t true for me. I didn’t have one kid who I wasn’t able to reach and who didn’t learn. And I loved them all. I just love teaching and thought I’d teach until I died.”

Even though Reynolds had a stroke in fall 2017 and her doctor said she wouldn’t return to the classroom, she proved him wrong and was back teaching in February 2018. Her retired husband would volunteer and her daughter, Angie Thompson, co-taught beside her.

“My own mom taught for 45 years and bawled every day after she retired. I’m pretty close to doing that. I taught about 700 kids and had every one of their pictures in the classroom. I cried with everything coming down. It was kind of like a museum of the past 28 years and this ‘soft closure’ was a sad way to end,” Reynolds said.

However, at the retirement parade for Reynolds and her colleagues, her students showed her just what else they learned—a positive outlook on life.

“I would always say ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray’ three times to them when they learned or accomplished something,” Reynolds said. “This time, they gave me the ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray.’”