Ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, she littered Waltham Elementary’s kindergarten room with “leprechaun traps.” Her kids went home thinking they’d capture one of the wee folk and seize their pot of gold.
It’s the sort of playful idea one would expect from a newly minted education major. But Karin Kummer, Waltham’s kindergarten teacher, is a 24-year veteran who could retire within the next decade — not that she’s given it much thought.
Kummer has spent her entire career teaching children younger than 8 but found her niche in kindergarten, where she matches students in energy and imagination. Visitors might see her sing and dance to instructional videos on counting 1-10 or learning the ABCs. Peers who would personally be exhausted marvel at how she rarely displays any fatigue.
“This is fun,” Kummer said. “I’m very lucky. I come to work every day loving what I do. And I’ve always enjoyed being in the primary classroom.
“I’m going to say it keeps me young.”
The Ottawa native didn’t rouse much surprise at the dinner table when she announced she was thinking of becoming an educator. Teenaged Karin Oslanzi had taught dancing at a local studio and immediately bonded with the youngest students, revealing natural patience as the kids fumbled and stumbled about.
“It’s just a fun age,” she said.
After graduating Ottawa High School she enrolled at Illinois Valley Community College and then Illinois State University, where she majored in education. When finished she accepted a job at Putnam County schools – just 10 days before the start of the school year.
Barb Marks, now retired from Putnam County, remembered wondering what to make of this fresh-faced graduate who had less than two weeks of preparation, but the two of them hit it off. The rookie shared in the grunt work without complaint and drew nods of approval in the classroom.
“She’s one of those people who was meant to be a teacher,” Marks said.
Kummer proved a capable primary teacher but found she preferred kindergarten, where children are docile and most imaginative. There were, of course, spills and bathroom accidents, but Kummer quickly developed a strong stomach and cool nerves – except for when the Tooth Fairy is about to visit.
“I’m great with everything except wiggly teeth,” she said with a grimace. “I could never have been a dentist.”
Mary Gilbert, another former PC colleague, said Kummer had, and has, the ability to spot something lovable inside every child.
“There were kids who cried when they graduated kindergarten,” Gilbert said, “because they didn’t want to leave ‘Miss O’ [Oslanzi].”
There were fresh tears when Kummer herself left Putnam County. The 2004 tornado slammed the Granville school, and her resulting transfer to Hennepin meant a 45-minute commute from Ottawa. Waltham had an opening and was closer to home.
“We were all devastated,” Gilbert recalled. “We didn’t want her to leave.”
Waltham Superintendent Kristi Eager recalled the strong impression Kummer made with her “uncanny” ability to work with children and for her seemingly boundless patience.
“She truly has a gift for small children,” Eager said. “And to be able to still do it with such passion and excitement, you would never know she’s been doing this job for 24 years.”
Kummer may have loved her job but she didn’t always agree with regulators on how to do it. Schools had emphasized early starts and the push was on teachers to make children learn their numbers and ABCs. The force-feeding approach eventually was dropped, but it didn’t come soon enough for Kummer.
“I think the pendulum is swinging back to understanding the purpose of play, which I’m thrilled about,” Kummer said. “I don’t see the rush to make them learn more when they can learn it better.”
Accelerated learning and the tornado had been bad times for Kummer, but COVID-19 was worse. She had always encouraged children to be open and uninhibited, but with the pandemic she had to hit the brakes.
“The worst thing for me was having to teach kids in a way that I didn’t think wasn’t developmentally appropriate for them,” she explained. “We had them 6 feet apart. They couldn’t play together. They were supposed to keep their distance.
“And that’s just not a natural thing for a 5- or 6-year-old to do.”
Eager said COVID-19 presented another difficulty for Kummer: She couldn’t hug the kids.
“Little ones want their hugs from her — from all of us, actually — and that was one of the hardest things I saw her go through,” Eager said.
Kummer is enjoying life after the lockdown experience and doesn’t need cooling-off time after work. The typical day ends not with a nap or curling up with a book but instead fetching her son, sixth-grader William, and going “from teacher to mom.” Yet she doesn’t find it depleting.
She hasn’t given much thought to retire, either, even though she’ll be pension-eligible within the next decade.
“We’ll see,” Kummer said of retirement. “I’ve only got the one little boy and the deciding factor may be where he ends up.”