JOLIET – Kathleen Baxter was an enthusiastic 20-year-old college graduate when she started working as a fifth-grade teacher at Crystal Lawns Elementary School in 1974.
She was excited about the opportunity to teach fifth-graders at the school, the second elementary institution in Plainfield District 202, even when she couldn’t take her students on field trips.
“I wasn’t old enough to be legally liable for the children,” Baxter said about when she started teaching.
Now after 40 years at Crystal Lawn, 19 years as a teacher and the last 21 as a principal, Baxter is retiring and leaving the school with a legacy that Plainfield District 202 Superintendent John Harper described as “remarkable.”
Along with her roles as teacher and principal, Baxter served with the PTA and was a seven-year president of the Association of Plainfield Teachers. Baxter’s former secretary and good friend Rhonda Jurgel also remembers her as a Girl Scout leader and an important member of a tornado crisis committee after the 1990 Plainfield tornado.
“She’s a person that gives up herself freely, educating, assisting and commiserating with those in need whether professional or personal,” Jurgel said.
Harper said Baxter managed to cut a unique career path.
“For any educator to have led teachers in so many different capacities is impressive,” Harper said. “To do so while investing 40 years of service to the same school community is amazing.”
One of Baxter’s main tenets of childhood education is that school needs to be fun. And as she spent more time at Crystal Lawns, she introduced elements of her childhood to the students.
Baxter introduced marionette shows, which have been a staple event of the school for several years. She also spurred the outdoor education program and an international unit where students learn about different cultures and gather together for a feast in which families of all ethnicities bring their own meals.
“She’s a fixture in the school and community,” K-3 and special education teacher Lynette Darnell said, adding that Baxter helps out with all facets of the school including teaching. “She knows all the families. It’ll feel empty for a while after she leaves.”
The fifth-grade teaching position was Baxter’s first job after graduating from the National College of Education, now National Louis University.
Since then, the nature of education has changed quite a bit.
The practice of reading from textbooks has changed while advancements in technology have helped teaching tremendously, Baxter said.
“It does make it more of a chore to remind students books still contain valuable information,” Baxter said, adding that she supports the new core curriculum for math based on comprehension more than rote memorization.
After retirement Baxter plans to travel and take some classes for fun, including cooking.
But she’ll still remain close to Crystal Lawns.
“I will volunteer and stay involved,” Baxter said. “I’m looking forward to what’s next for me.”