'A solid base': M-S retired kindergarten teacher Laurie Padjen built a legacy of kindness

MAHOMET — Laurie Padjen had one rule in her classroom above all else: be kind. The now-retired Middletown Prairie Elementary kindergarten teacher made her life's work planting kindness seeds in the hearts of 5-year-old students.

"I lived by that motto," Padjen said. "If you can be kind, then you've got the world."

The Richmond native has been teaching that principle since she was 6 years old, when she imagined her bedroom as a classroom full of students.

"All of my animals and dolls were my students and that lasted my whole life," Padjen joked.

Padjen studied elementary education at Illinois State University and went on to teach for the former Minonk-Dana-Rutland Elementary School for three years. After getting married and having children, Padjen stepped away from her career until her youngest child entered kindergarten.

After she and her family moved to Mahomet, Padjen decided to re-enter the classroom. Her career has taken her from the dated, and now torn down, Middletown Early Childhood Education Center to Sangamon Elementary School and even the new Middletown Prairie Elementary School.

"I've seen a lot of kids," Padjen joked. "I get really attached to the families every year."

For the last 24 years, Padjen helped children in the Mahomet-Seymour district learn to read and write. Far more than rudimentary skills, Padjen instilled a love for learning.

"Kindergarten is like you're on a stage and every 15 minutes you're moving and you're this actress," Padjen said. "So when they're looking at you, your whole body has to be there. Your whole everything has to be in it, and you have to be funny and you have to be serious and you have to move them and switch it and know when something's not working for somebody."

The great responsibility to make a difference in the lives of her students is something Padjen did not take lightly. She compared the task to that of building a skyscraper.

"The base is so important," she said. "Without a solid base, everything's going to fall down."

For Padjen, kindergarten was that base.

"Everything you do in this room, everything you teach them, can set their academic success, their love of school, their love of reading, their love of writing and numbers," she said. "It all starts in kindergarten. If you don't have a good base, it affects them all of the way through."

Over the years, Padjen taught hundreds of students at the beginning of their educational trek.

"I'm to the point where some of the kids I taught now I'm teaching their children," she joked.

Padjen never tired of teaching because of one simple reason — "the kindergarten kids."

"They just bring joy and love and smiles and giggles," she said.

But teaching wasn't always a daily enjoyment for Padjen. She, like many others, experienced many sleepless nights filled with worry.

"Many times I was sick to my stomach wondering what is happening with some children," she said. "You lay awake trying to figure out, 'How can I give to that kid?'"

"You don't walk out of the door and go home and be done," she added. "You don't go home for the summer and be done — it's a tough job. It's really rewarding when that kid figures that out, when that lightbulb goes off and they figure out how to read ... it's incredible. You just start smiling and laughing."

The hardest part, of course, was watching her children move on to the next grade level as she built solid relationships with the students. Despite the difficult transition, Padjen enjoyed watching the process of the students' growth. She especially took delight when former students would reach out and thank her.

"When you grow up, you don't remember who your teacher was unless (he or she) was a powerful impact on your life," Padjen said.

Of the students who contacted her, one pupil in particular stood out to Padjen.

"In general, this person started kindergarten really rough with lots of stuff going on," Padjen said. "But the student graduated from high school and kept in contact with me the whole time. This person is now such a successful adult and a phenomenal parent."

Padjen formed lasting bonds with her students by establishing mutual trust and by creating an "equal playing field" for all students.

"I've always taught them what my father taught me — you are not better than anyone else and no one is better than you," she said. "You're all on an equal playing field, so treat people that way."

The classroom management style made all the difference for the student who kept in contact with the kindergarten teacher.

"If this person had been prejudged then this person wouldn't have even had a chance (to succeed)," she added.

While Padjen enjoyed getting to know a whole new batch of students each fall, a part of her knew it was simply time to retire.

"I've been teaching a long time," Padjen said, "but there's not enough time to do everything I want to do."

May's "bittersweet" goodbye was one that Padjen knew she would never be prepared for; but nonetheless, she said "it was time."

"On the other side, the sweet side, I get to be Laurie," she said. "I get to be a daughter, which I'm very blessed that my parents are still alive. I get to be a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandma, a friend, and I'll have time for all of that and that's what I'm looking forward to."

Padjen hopes to spend her retirement traveling and snapping pictures with her brand-new camera.

"I've wanted to see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall," she said. "I want to go to Maine and Vermont and see fall. I want to take that fall drive and as a teacher, you can't."

The retired kindergarten teacher also looks forward to spending more time with her grandchild, doing a little gardening, reading more and continuing to learn.

"I'm looking to discover things I might like that I don't even know yet," Padjen said.

But before a new school year starts and a new set of faculty begins, Padjen thanked the community she served for 24 years.

"I am very proud to be a teacher in this school," she said. "If you've never taught in another school or you've never lived in another town, you don't realize what you have here. The family support, the school support, the resources we can have through all of the things in the community and through families ... unbelievable."

Categories (2):News, Education

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