When September rolls around, it will mark the first time since Kathy Robbins was 5 years old that she will not be sitting at a desk in the Lawrence Township Public Schools – as a student or as a staff member.
That’s because after 34 years, Robbins is calling it a day and retiring from the Lawrence Township school district. She officially retired June 30 as the principal at the Eldridge Park School on Lawn Park Avenue.
“From kindergarten, all I ever wanted to do was to teach,” said Robbins, who grew up in Lawrence Township. She attended the Lawrence Township public schools, graduating from Lawrence High School in 1971.
“People change their minds (about a career), but teaching is all I ever wanted to do. I love working with young children. You see such growth when they are little, socially and academically,” Robbins said.
Robbins’ path into the classroom took a slight detour when she married soon after graduating from Lawrence High School. She and her husband, former Lawrence Township Fire Official Dale Robbins, started a family and she stayed home to raise their daughter.
When her daughter enrolled in kindergarten at the Slackwood School – the same school that she attended as a child – Robbins volunteered in the school library. The next year, Robbins moved over to the Ben Franklin Elementary School, where she worked as a cashier in the school cafeteria.
Robbins took a job as a special education assistant at the Ben Franklin Elementary School, and it was the special education teacher with whom she worked who convinced Robbins to go to college and earn a degree in education.
Robbins acted on the teacher’s advice, and enrolled at The College of New Jersey. She earned a bachelor’s degree in special education, and teaching certificates in elementary education and early childhood education.
Degree in hand, Robbins was hired to teach kindergarten – her dream come true – at the Ben Franklin Elementary School. She remained at that school, eventually teaching all of the grades – pre-K through 3rd grade.
Along the way, Robbins decided that she wanted to learn more about how to teach reading – the skills and strategies. So, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in reading and language arts at Rider University.
When the reading specialist at the Ben Franklin Elementary School retired, Robbins said, the principal asked her if she would like to become the reading specialist. She accepted the offer, after much thought.
“When you are teaching in the classroom, it’s like a family. You work closely with the students and their families to make a community of learners,” Robbins said.
“It was a hard decision to make to leave the classroom, but teaching reading (as a reading specialist) was really rewarding. The goal is to get the children to read,” she said.
But Robbins’ career trajectory was not yet finished.
The principal at the Ben Franklin Elementary School suggested to Robbins that perhaps she would like to move into school administration and become a principal. It was not something that she had ever aspired to achieve, but she thought about it.
“I always liked going to school and learning more. The principal talked me into becoming a principal. He felt that I would make a good principal,” Robbins said.
Robbins went back to school and this time, she received a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from The College of New Jersey.
“What I found when I worked as a reading specialist is that you work with the students and the classroom teacher. But being a principal would give me a chance to work with teachers and to be a partner with them in education,” she said.
Robbins left the Ben Franklin Elementary School, where she had taught for 20 years, and moved over to the Eldridge Park School. She said she thought that being a teacher would allow her to have impact, but she found that being a principal meant she had even greater impact on the students and the teachers.
“It’s funny how life makes changes. Sometimes, making a change can be scary, but sometimes you just jump into it. You don’t know where it will take you in life,” Robbins said.
“When I was in the classroom, I loved it so much. My goal was to be a kindergarten teacher forever. But every change was something I loved doing,” she said.
Robbins admitted to having mixed feelings about retirement. On the one hand, “you would want to retire when you are healthy and you are able to do things,”she said.
“The thing that’s hard is leaving my school family. I will miss it,” Robbins said, adding that the hardest button she ever had to push was the one to apply for her pension.
“When you hit the ‘send’ button, it’s real,” she said.
On the flip side, Robbins said, she will be able to take her morning walks with her husband when it is light. The couple would get up early to take their walks so Robbins could be at school on time. And she will be able to read what she wants – not just professional journals.
Still, there was a bit of wistfulness as Robbins reminded herself – again – that it will be the first time in many years that she will not be going back to school in September. But she won’t miss having to carry out her principal’s duties during the summer.
“This will be the first time in 14 years that I have the summer off, and I am looking forward to that piece,” Robbins said.