First-graders aren't the only people who think Karen Kreider is a-w-e-s-o-m-e.
A visit to her classroom tells a lot about Kreider. Her enthusiasm could make you dizzy, if you weren't as inquisitive and enthusiastic as she is. Which, by definition, is a first-grader.
"They're very loving and sweet," she said of first-graders. "They're very funny. And they're serious in that they want to do their very best. They will work so hard."
The hard work may seem like fun, because Kreider engages them in a way that most might not consider work at all.
"I love first grade in that they don't know what is difficult and what is easy," she said.
She wants to build writers. "I find so many adults who say, 'Oh, I can't write.' I just feel sorry for them. Even with all the technology, employers are looking for people who know how to write. "They need them to be able to communicate," she said. "I love to teach writing."
One way she does that is by teaching them to use adjectives that go beyond the easy ones. She wants to build writers. "I teach them words like crème de la crème, stellar, excelente," she said. She acts as their spell checker. "It's easy for them to learn all these words."
Kreider's "toolbox" is filled with inspiring sayings. "I love quotes," she said. "They fortify me." There's always room for more.
For Karen Kreider, the first-grade classroom — hand puppets included — is a second career. She retired after 25 years as a principal in the San Leandro public schools, and took care of ill family members.
"I don't travel and my yard looked great," she said. So she began to look for something more.
"As a gift to myself, I'd like to go somewhere where I walk among people who have totally devoted their life to kindness, honesty and goodness," she said. "What a wonderful place … a slice of heaven."
She was drawn to St. Francis of Assisi School, which is under the leadership of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. "What a gift to walk among these people," she said. "Just to be next to them, and talk to them, and to create this wonderful environment where everyone looks to goodness and kindness."
Kreider interviewed with then-principal Sister Noreen O'Connor, CSJ. "Karen is a natural, you might say "born" professional teacher!" Sister Noreen said in an interview by email.
Sister Noreen checked her credentials.
"Karen expressed much energy and passion around her teaching style and methodology, I knew she had to be successful in reaching students at all levels of learning," she wrote. "Her examples of student involvement in the learning process, and her interactive teaching-learning style were exactly what I was looking for in a first grade teacher. Her vision for every student was to empower them with a love for learning and education and to be affirmed every step along the way."
Kreider's memory of the interview includes something of a dilemma: She noticed the birch trees in the school's grotto were suffering in the summer heat.
"I've always tried to live my life by doing the noble thing," Kreider said. "What's the noble thing? Tell her her trees need watering."
So, at the conclusion of the interview, she asked Sister Noreen if she could water the trees. Kreider, in a long skirt, stepped into the grotto, hooked up a hose, and watered those birches.
One of those quotes she carries in her toolbox came in handy: "You do what's right because it's right."
Even if you spray water all over yourself in doing so.
"It was not ceremonious," Kreider recalled.
Today, those birches continue to dominate the grotto, which is sprinkled with small statues and other blooming plants.
Yes, Karen Kreider tends the grotto.
"She's a joy," said Sister James Marien Dyer, CSJ, the current principal, who is also delighted to have someone in her corner who knows what a principal goes through.
In teaching at the Catholic school, Kreider, a lifelong Christian, would attend Mass with her students. "I loved getting a blessing," she said, crossing her arms.
All those blessings got her thinking, "God is giving me a direction here," she said.
The prayers of the sisters and the school community, she said, helped her through a battle with cancer, which took her away from school for two years.
Kreider was received into the Catholic Church a year ago, a particular blessing for the school community. "What an honor to be a Catholic," said Kreider, who as a principal kept the Prayer of St. Francis on her office wall.
As Kreider's first-grade writers busily added adjectives to describe a day at the zoo, her instructional aide was asked for an adjective to describe Kreider.
"She's beyond words," Fran De Prete said.
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