Cherokee Elementary School’s Karen White has been teaching for 19 years, and a conversation with the upbeat, creative and forward-thinking first-grade instructor reveals her desire and drive is still growing by the day.
“Imagine just saying, ‘get out your pencil,’ ” she said while hosting the Johnson City Press in her empty classroom. “Think about it. They’re children, and they need to play. There is a science to it, and we don’t have time to waste.”
White is a native of New Market. She attended Jefferson High School and earned a bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State University in fashion design and merchandising.
She was a member of the former Brotherly Love Christian Ministry for 30 years. The church and its gospel choir gave her a creative outlet for singing — something she and her sister were raised on at home.
White said her mother would use the combination of notes played on an organ followed by melodies to wake the youngsters or as a way to communicate ideas. She didn’t realize it then, but those methods stuck with her and became teaching tools of her own.
“When I was little, my mom worked with the junior choir,” she said. “The next thing I know, my sister and I would be singing together. We had a passion for gospel music. My mother would make up songs to help us learn.”
That passion is strongly evident today in her classroom.
White demonstrated one of her “action songs” by standing on a large rug and singing and dancing in a way that conveyed in a lively and melodious manner what a dry textbook delivers in a very static way when the subject is the shape of a cube.
“I’ve taken that passion and use it in many ways to help them learn,” she said. “I’ll have them sing and dance. They sing and slide and move their arms and hands in the shape of a cube. We also use song and rhythm to teach dates and whether a comma is needed at a certain place in a sentence.”
White also will sing out to cue students that they need to go to a certain area of the room where a lesson is about to begin.
“They know they need to be in that spot before the song ends,” she said.
White originally wanted to go to New York and be a fashion designer. One look around her colorful classroom reveals that interest has not faded.
After graduating from ETSU, she worked at Sears analyzing and approving credit and later at Sammons Cable answering phones and taking payments.
“I realized those jobs weren’t going to do,” she said. “I went back to ETSU and got my master of arts in teaching. A friend, Pam Whetted, was a teacher at North Side. Finally, she sat me down and said, ‘you know you’re a teacher, everybody knows you’re a teacher.’ I decided, OK, I can do this.”
She began as a substitute after graduating in 1992 and got a job that fall at Cherokee to teach first- and second-graders because the overflow of younger students were being sent there. She then began teaching first grade.
“I can remember when I got the room prepared I looked around at all the chairs and thought to myself, ‘I have to make this happen.’ And 19 years later I still think that.”
After 15 years, she decided to go back to school. She earned a specialist in administration degree at the Kingsport Campus of Lincoln Memorial University. In 2002, she came back to Cherokee and taught third grade. But there were not enough students to fill the seats at the time, so she taught third grade for two years until returning to first grade.
She said new state standards have put extra pressure on teachers and students, but White appears to have what it takes to “make it happen.”
“It is a big burden, but given time we’ll adapt to the changes,” she said. “These are children, not products. We don’t want to make them products. Our students don’t deserve the best of one teacher; they deserve the best of our entire team.”