Barb Burnett works on reading with her fourth-grade students from left, Hailey Olson, Santiago Castro, Annabella Rodzos, and Michelle Huynh at Frank Elementary School in Perrysburg. Mrs. Burnett taught fifth grade before she retired in June, 2010.
Barb Burnett was supposed to be in South Carolina on a recent 50-degree day, not in a fourth-grade classroom at Frank Elementary in Perrysburg.
Mrs. Burnett, who taught fifth grade at Fort Meigs Elementary, retired in June, 2010. She was tired, the kind of tiredness that comes with being in education for 34 years.
Mrs. Burnett planned to sell her house in Perrysburg and move to the South to be closer to family in Atlanta.
But last summer, Frank Principal Brent Swartzmiller was faced with uncertainty as he prepared for the start of the school year.
Fourth-grade teacher Karen Ash had cancer, and it wasn't clear how sick she was. Mr. Swartzmiller wanted a back-up plan. He needed an experienced teacher who could fill in for Mrs. Ash if necessary, whether for a day, or a week, or a whole year.
In July, he asked Mrs. Burnett for help. Would she be willing to teach again for one year?
Mrs. Burnett, a "kind soul," as the principal put it, agreed.
Mrs. Ash died at age 43 on Aug. 28, four days after school started. Mrs. Burnett, 69, took over Mrs. Ash's classroom, which was full of Mrs. Ash's handwritten notes and teaching supplies, things that made Mrs. Burnett feel closer to the teacher, whom she did not know. "It's a personal glimpse of her," she said. "You can just tell she really cared about kids."
Mrs. Burnett began the school year with an energetic crew of students, the kind of class that needs a teacher with a calm, soothing effect like Mrs. Burnett's.
"She wouldn't want to be seen as a grandmother type," said school counselor Maggie Collins, after she admitted that Mrs. Burnett is, indeed, like a grandmother type.
On a recent casual Friday, the desks were pushed aside, and the fourth graders sat on the floor on sleeping bags. Some wore fuzzy pink slippers, others were in leopard-print pajamas. Goose bumps books, stuffed animals, and an opened bag of pretzels were on the floor. The students were having a readathon to celebrate finishing a week of standardized testing.
While Mrs. Burnett practiced reading with one group of students, several 10-year-old girls reflected on the past year. They said they like how Mrs. Burnett teaches them about bullies and that she orchestrated a science fair. They laughed at how Mrs. Burnett's New Jersey accent comes out when she says the word "coffee." They said they like that she cares for them -- "like a teacher should," Hailey Olson of Perrysburg said.
By the teacher's desk is a note handwritten in colorful block letters that reads "Mrs. Burnett is so cool. I love fourth grade."
The feelings appear to be mutual.
"They're just characters. … They make me laugh," Mrs. Burnett said about her students. "It's been a blessing to be here this year."