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Teacher who spent entire career in early education looks back on changes

Debbi Braden teaches her kindergarten class with a counting numbers song at Emily Brittain Elementary School on Feb. 10. Braden is retiring from teaching at Emily Brittain after more than 30 years. Joseph Ressler/Butler Eagle

Debbi Braden is moving out of her second home this summer after 30 years, which is longer than she has lived in her Butler Township house.

The kindergarten classroom Braden has taught in at Emily Brittain Elementary School all these years has become her second home not only because of the time she spent there, but also for the relationship she has developed with the school community.

It’s the aspect of her job she’ll miss most in her retirement.

“We work with families more than we ever had in the past,” Braden said. “I will definitely miss my Emily Brittain family. Not just my children and their families, but my colleagues, because at Emily Brittain we are truly a family.”

Braden taught first grade at Saint Marys Area School District before coming to Emily Brittain in the mid-1980s. One of her personal preferences was she never wanted to teach anyone taller than her.

While she was able to stick to this rule her whole career, Braden was not averse to learning from people shorter than her.

“When you deal with that many individuals over the course of your lifetime and you deal with that many families and see them come and go, there is so much to learn,” Braden said. “That I love about the kids, and as the school year progresses I see more of that.”

The whole student

In 30 years, Braden has seen many changes in her tenure at not only her school, but elementary schools nationwide.

The population has fluctuated in Butler County and Butler Area School District over the decades, and the socio-economic needs of families have become more of a priority.

As the needs of school families have expanded, the resources available have expanded as well.

“If their bellies aren't full, I can't fill their brains,” Braden said of her students. “We work with families more than we ever had in the past. We are able to better meet the needs of our kids because we do have more support staff, and they are very well-trained.”

Cassandra Pencek, principal of Emily Brittain Elementary, said the school has continually gotten more resources for students. Local organizations and even members of the school community have been finding ways to keep students healthy over the years.

“If they need a new shirt, they get a new shirt. If they missed out on breakfast, they get breakfast,” Pencek said. “I think many places are trying to figure out how to better do that.”

Families experiencing insecurity of basic needs can lead to further problems in a child attending school. Pencek said the school is trying to address the root needs of children now that many organizations help with food and clothing.

“The new part is the social, emotional and mental health needs that maybe have risen for students and their caregivers,” Pencek said. “So we are trying to find resources and support to meet those needs.”

Braden said she has always tried to make an impact on her students every day by giving them positive ways of dealing with problems.

“You have to make sure that you have a kind heart and you handle things in a compassionate way, and give children what they need for their age level,” Braden said.

Keeping up with kindergartners

In addition to the shifting focus of elementary education, Braden said she has also seen changes in teaching and curriculum over the years. She said the focus for elementary school when she first started was “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic.”

In more recent years, Braden said she has focused more on teaching problem solving and even confidence, because children need a base for the education they will receive in future grades.

“Success doesn't mean ‘ABCD,’ success means growth,” Braden said. “They're learning that you just don't give up, you keep trying. They know that tasks can be difficult, but they can continue to work at it.”

The growth begins on the very first day of kindergarten, which is the first day of structured education many children experience.

“I love the fact that when they come to me, most of their background is their family,” Braden said. “I just want them to feel safe, so it's a day spent learning about each other, getting to know their peers, getting to know expectations, basic rules so they can be safe.“

Braden also said she had advocated to bring full-day kindergarten to Emily Brittain for years, and it finally came to fruition about four years ago, which she was happy to see.

Dale Markle is former principal at Emily Brittain who worked with Braden. He said elementary school teachers are also often the first role models for kindergartners outside their family, and they almost become like extra parents to some children.

“These teachers have opened their hearts and their doors for these kids,” Markle said.

Braden and Markle recalled one of the biggest turning points in education in their careers, 9/11. Braden said that while it is difficult to explain security policies and the reason behind them, kindergartners are normally pretty accepting.

“Kindergarteners don't need nitty-gritty detail, they just need the basics and that suffices,” Braden said. “We now have intruder drills, things that we never had before. Speaking to 5-year-olds and saying that if someone unsafe comes into the school, this is what we do and where we go.”

Graduating kindergarten (teaching)

The coronavirus pandemic also changed education, in that teachers had to adapt their lessons to virtual formats.

Braden said she had a difficult time adapting to virtual teaching, although initiatives like the one-to-one student to laptop ratio is a positive in getting children educated with technology early.

“I'm excited to see where it goes in the next 10, 20 years,” she said of evolving technology.

Despite Braden’s challenges in getting acquainted with virtual teaching, Pencek said she was impressed with how far she was able to take it for children. Pencek sat in on a virtual class session led by Braden, and said was amazed at how Braden was able to keep the students’ attention while they were on video at home.

“Her instruction virtually for kids, I could have watched it all day,” Pencek said. “She had backgrounds and her flag was up and she had entertainment embedded. She couldn't work technology and then she was like the guru.”

While Braden doesn’t intend to begin substitute teaching, like some teachers do in retirement, she wants to stay involved through volunteering and helping out in other ways at Emily Brittain.

She said being a teacher could feel like a 24/7 job, for better or for worse. Even so, Braden is looking forward to traveling with her husband more often in retirement, and continuing to be “a teacher in other ways.”

“I always believed I was born to teach, that's going to be hard not teaching,” Braden said. “But I can be a teacher in other ways. I am really excited just to take a breath.”

Retiring Emily Brittain Elemtary School kindergarten teacher Debbi Braden sits in her classroom at the school. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle