A sad goodbye for Brookwood teacher
After 41 years, Duros-Cooper reluctantly retires
July 13, 2011 | 08:29 AMGenoa City — Not anybody can be a teacher, said Gerri Duros-Cooper.
She should know. For the last 41 years, Duros-Cooper has taught in the Brookwood School District.
But this school year was the last for this eighth-grade English and literature teacher. Duros-Cooper is the third longtime Brookwood teacher to retire this year. She joins the ranks of third-grade teacher Vicki Fort, who taught there 37 years, and physical education teacher Cyndy Lent, who taught for 35. Those teachers also retired.
They were more open about it. Duros-Cooper said this was a "last-minute decision" for her, one which herself and fellow staff members kept under wraps. Only recently did word spread about her retirement, and Duros-Cooper said she has received several e-mails about it since the news broke.
Why try to keep it quiet? Duros-Cooper said it's a difficult decision, one she still is struggling to accept. She said she's not ready.
"I never called it a job," Duros-Cooper said about teaching. "It's like a professional golfer being paid to golf. I was happy teaching."
She said it wasn't a situation where the School Board told her to retire. However, given the state's current budget crisis, she wasn't sure she could continue doing what she loves.
"I need to protect my financial future," Duros-Cooper said, choking back tears. "So many other Wisconsin educators have to make this same decision."
As for that future, when asked what she wants to do, her eyes dried.
"I definitely want to sub at Brookwood," Duros-Cooper said.
Born to teach
Growing up in Genoa City with six brothers and two sisters, she said she always was the one in charge, the one helping her siblings with their homework.
She attended Brookwood prior to Badger High School, then went on to Racine-Kenosha Teachers College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Then, for her master's degree, Duros-Cooper attended Aurora University.
It was in college when Duros-Cooper decided what she should do with the rest of her life. Specifically, it was watching a teacher in action.
She said the teacher was Mrs. Baer, but she didn't remember her first name because "that was in the days when teachers didn't have first names."
"She could just stand in front of the class, not say a word and command everyone's attention," Duros-Cooper said. "I remember thinking I could do that — and I have."
But Brookwood remained close to her heart. Duros-Cooper said she had difficulty adjusting to Badger because she was "homesick" for Brookwood.
"It's just a family," she said. "Even in grade school, I never had a teacher I didn't like."
So, at the age of 24, an opportunity presented itself. Duros-Cooper returned to Brookwood as a fourth-grade teacher, joining the ranks of several teachers who once taught her as a child.
"So many of these teachers were still there, so the difficult thing for me was calling them by their first names," she said.
Her first day in front of a classroom was as a fourth-grade teacher.
Duros-Cooper recalls being "a little overwhelmed because of the paperwork I knew I'd have," but "totally confident."
The confidence she brought likely stems from more than just a love of children.
"I really think that I have a true understanding of children," Duros-Cooper said. "Like when they have problems, you may know that these problems will eventually go away, but for that moment, you really have to … look at it through their eyes."
She discussed several reasons why teaching isn't a "job" to her.
Duros-Cooper said she likes being a role model.
"It keeps me on my toes," she said.
Duros-Cooper also said she likes gaining a pupil's respect.
"I don't think a teacher should demand it," she said. "I think they have to earn it."
A teacher must admit when they're wrong and realize they never stop learning — even if it's from their students.
Duros-Cooper said probably the biggest changes at Brookwood is one that likely has affected any longtime teacher. But the children were there to help her along the way.
"Going from the chalkboard to the white board to the SMART Board, it was a challenge for someone like me, who didn't grow up today, knowing all the games and things they have today," she said. "They know so much about the ins and outs of things like YouTube."
However, she said probably the most important thing a teacher must do is trust their students. At the same time, while admitting she likes slogans, she said the sign in front of her classroom was a friendly reminder of who's in charge: "This room is run by COOPERation."
"Kids want to be trusted," Duros-Cooper said. "But I let them know when I don't."
It's not easy to be a teacher, she said, but it keeps her young — among other things.
"I love the fact that teaching sort of gives you an excuse to be eccentric," Duros-Cooper said. "Teachers are in their own world. We kind of want to grow up, then we kind of don't want to grow up because we're with kids all day."
So why is teaching not for everybody?
Why does Duros-Cooper say it's not easy?
She said there are several challenges. No two days are alike, but working with children requires emotional strength.
"Not everybody always has a good day," Duros-Cooper said.
There's the challenge of providing a mentally safe learning environment, and the challenge relating to why a teacher is there in the first place — to shape lives.
"Did I make a difference today? Is someone taking what they learned here and going to use it in everyday life? These are the questions I ask myself every day," Duros-Cooper said.
Then there's the connections a teacher forges with her students.
"You become emotionally attached to these kids," she said. "It's a great joy and a great challenge. It's like being a Mommy."
But she said the best part of teaching is meeting these challenges.
"And being with the kids," Duros-Cooper said. "Their different personalities, the questions they ask, trying to come with all these different ways to teach one thing … I like being challenged like that."
Although she said teaching also gives her a chance to be "weird," there's a level of comfort she doesn't receive anywhere else.
"I'm much more relaxed in front of my class than in front of my family," Duros-Cooper said.
All this is why she said it's difficult to leave.
"I have been so involved in school," she said. "I tell everybody teaching at Brookwood is like I'd died and went to Teacher Heaven."
As for the children in her last class, she offered this advice.
"I just don't want kids to not stop and smell the roses once in a while," Duros-Cooper said. "Sometimes, the old-fashioned way of doing things is OK."