Donna Schultz has chased after, danced with and given hugs to generations of kindergartners at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.
"When they come in, some have experience and some have none. Seeing them open and blossom is exciting," said the longtime paraeducator. "And sometimes you make a difference in these kids' lives."
Schultz, 62, is retiring this year after 25 years at Phelps Luck Elementary. June 17, the last day for students, is also her last day in the job.
"You know it's time when your knees are hurting," said the Columbia native. "You have to be young if you want to chase 5- year-olds around all the time."
She wants to spend time with her grandchildren and travel with her husband; they have a trip planned to South Dakota this summer and are hoping to take an interior cruise of Alaska next year.
"We're writing the book as we go," she said. "I've never been retired before, so I don't know what to expect."
Students and staff are the parts of the job she will miss the most, Schultz said.
"I think September's going to hit me hard, when everyone's heading back to school and I'm not," she said.
Before she became a paraeducator, Schultz ran a daycare out of her home while her two children were still young. .
"My kids were getting jealous of everybody being at the house and all their toys and all," she said, "and I wanted to get out of the house."
She interviewed with Howard County schools and got a job as a kindergarten paraeducator, or instructional assistant as the job was known then, at Northfield Elementary School and Phelps Luck Elementary School. After five years, she was able to dedicate her time to just Phelps Luck.
The position offered Schultz the chance to spend summers with her own kids and to be home when they were home from school. On top of that, she loved the work, she said.
"I can't imagine doing something I didn't like, day in and day out, and hating it," she said. "So I'm really glad I found something I like to do."
When asked what she likes about the job, Schultz said, "Everything, I guess.
"The way they come in — they are just full of joy," she said. "And everything is fun, except for the first week. Some kids are really ready, and some are crying. And we have to slowly separate the parents and kids, because it's hard for the parents, too."
After that first week, Schultz said, she plays games with her students, helps them learn and watches them come into their own.
"There are days when you go, 'ah!' But you can't help but love them all," she said. "Because face it, we don't go into it for the money. You go into it because you want to make a difference and help the children. As long as I've done that — I've done what I set out to do."
Schultz recalled working with two sisters who spoke very little English and started attending full-day kindergarten in order to get extra support in math and language arts.
"They were crying because all the other kids were leaving," she said. "All I did was sit and hold them. Mothering translates beyond all barriers."
As the year went on, Schultz helped the girls learn English vocabulary words, and they in turn helped her learn a little Spanish.
"I would point something out, like my hands, and they would say 'manos,' and I would say 'hands,' " she said.
When the two sisters graduated high school three years ago, they came back to Phelps Luck to visit Schultz.
"They don't too often remember the paras," Schultz said. "So it's really something when they do remember you."
Schultz's work is not only about the students, she said; she has to build a rapport with parents, too.
"It's about caring about their children; I guess the parents really see that," she said. "And you have to talk to the parents – something I have no problem doing, because I'm a people person: 'How are you doing? What are you doing? Bobby had a great day today.'"
In addition to her work at Phelps Luck, Schultz has fought for professional development for paraeducators as a member and vice president of the county's teachers and education support professionals union.
"When I started, we got nothing. They told me how to do bulletin boards and how to cut letters out. There was no classroom management [training]," she said. "I kept saying, you got to do something with people, you just can't throw them in like that."
There is still a long way to go, Schultz said, adding that Howard County's school system has been a good one to work for.
"Things coming down the pipeline that you love, you don't love," she said. "That's life. Education is a constantly changing animal."
She just hopes that schools don't forget who students are.
"With education, we're always pushing," she said. "But I hope we don't lose sight that these children are still children. Yes, we still need to teach them, but we still need to let them be kids."