I realize that most readers of this blog are located outside of my Tooele County community, but I’d like you to read this post anyway, because it’s about one of the best teachers I’ve ever known.
Ask anybody to name their favorite school teacher and no matter how many years or miles separate them from that classroom– no matter what their current financial status or profession– a name will immediately come to mind. It’s the one teacher that connected with them, the one who had their back when the chips were down. The one who taught them stuff they may not recall now, but who instilled a sense of unforgettable wonder and love.
For many kids in Tooele County, that teacher is Miss Karma. First, I’d like you to read an article I wrote about her for the Tooele Transcript Bulletin a couple years ago:
Planting Seeds: Rose Springs’ Karma Dale to be honored with a Huntsman Award for Excellence
“I am a strawberry, where do I grow—up above or down below?”
First grade teacher Karma Dale shows a picture of the fruit to her students, who sit, all ears, on a large alphabet rug in her Rose Springs Elementary classroom. A smile fills her face as they exclaim in unison, “Up above!” and rise to their feet.
“I’ve got a perfect class,” the seasoned instructor beams in a tone as warm and sincere today as it’s been for the last 26 years. “An absolutely perfect class!”
Dale, 57, will be honored as a recipient of the 2010 Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education at a banquet in Salt Lake City this Friday.
“It was a total surprise,” Dale said of the announcement, which was made by Karen Huntsman during a surprise visit to her classroom last week.
But to her colleagues, the community of Stansbury Park, and hundreds of parents the county wide, Dale was a shoe-in for the prestigious award. Her nomination—one of hundreds across the state—was initiated by two parents in March and was quickly supplemented by a thick stack of endorsements from parents and co-workers.
“There simply are not adequate superlatives to describe Miss Karma’s teaching or her impact on children,” wrote Rose Springs Principal Leon Jones in her nomination packet.
Dale can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a teacher. She spent her childhood pretend-teaching her dolls in her Grantsville home. Her inanimate pupils sufficiently instructed, she younger brother to read before his first grade year.
After graduating from Primary in her Latter Day Saint ward at age 12, she was immediately given a teaching role in the organization. During her high school years, Dale’s uncle Levar Hansen, then Principal of Grantsville Elementary, often asked her to substitute teach.
“That’s when I knew for sure,” she said.
Dale earned an associate degree in early childhood development from Weber State University and opened a preschool in the Hansens’ basement. Over the next 13 years, Karma’s Kiddie Korner occupied various Grantsville locations, and “Miss Karma” became a household name.
After finishing a 4-year degree at Utah State University, Dale added her distinctive brand of instruction to Tooele’s East Elementary, where she taught kindergarten for 20 years. She spent another year teaching first grade at Northlake Elementary before moving to Rose Springs in 2005. After 26 years in the public school system, she still cherishes her job.
“I love to teach—it’s my everything,” she said. “It’s my life.”
Outside the classroom, Dale’s life hasn’t been easy. At age 25, she suffered a crippling stroke and underwent the grueling process of relearning how to walk, talk, and write.
She’s raised four children of her own—mostly as a single mother, which has meant taking extra jobs to make ends meet. She drives a ’94 Ford with one working door, which gets her to work every day “on a prayer.”
She says her teaching career is worth the sacrifice because it has allowed her to spend time with her kids.
“My hours matched their hours,” she said. “I had to mow some extra lawns, but I wanted to be home when they were home.”
The same dedication is apparent in Dale’s classroom, where she says she strives toward simple goal: to spark a lifelong desire to learn. Simple too is her approach: Love.
Those first few weeks [at school] I don’t care how much I teach them—I want them to know how much I value them and how much I love them. They need to feel secure. I don’t think, until they have those feelings, that they can start to learn,” she explained.
Dale believes students do best as active participants in the learning process. Learning, she says, is driven by curiosity and investigation. A well-known “Karma-ism” sums it up: “Kids learn better on their feet than in their seat.”
“I want to make school a happy, fun place to be,” she said. “Somewhere along the way we lose that magic. We forget that learning can be fun.”
Dale is well-known for her creative methods, which include hands-on and active experiences like hobo picnics, hatching chickens, and observing a caterpillar’s metamorphosis to butterfly. Students are challenged to read advanced sight words by “Winnie the Wicked Witch,” who “melts” to the floor with each successful reading.
Adding another dimension to the instruction is the class mascot, Corduroy, a bowtie-clad teddy bear, who plays several roles in the learning experience. He cheers students when they achieve; he’s there for a hug when their hurt. Often he’s a reverse psychologist, playing foil to Dale’s optimism.
“Corduroy just whispered to me that he doesn’t think the students can write those hard words,” she’ll announce.
“Yes we can, Corduroy!” comes the emphatic response.
To promote adventure and journaling, Corduroy is assigned to a single student each weekend. Students chronicle their adventures with him for a large class scrapbook. He’s a well-traveled bear, boasting trips all over the country.
“He’s the luckiest bear alive,” Dale smiled.
Dale says she makes sure to emphasize things that are of utmost importance to first grade age students—like losing teeth. Kids fortunate enough to lose their teeth under Dale’s tutelage become members of her tooth club. Their feats are graphed on a classroom wall.
“I have kids from other classes come and say ‘I’ve heard you pull teeth.’ That’s a really important thing in first grade!” she said.
Dale’s Huntsman award is made all the more gratifying by its timeliness, as she recovers from what was likely another stroke suffered last month. She says she doesn’t remember much about what happened, but says doctors told her later that they had given her a ten percent chance of surviving the first night.
News of Dale’s hospitalization spread quickly through the Stansbury Park. Rose Springs was flooded with well wishes and requests for news. A Facebook page created by family to provide updates on her status garnered over 300 followers.
To the delight of the community, Dale made a rapid recovery. Friends and family credit her indomitable spirit. Dale, in many ways, credits her students.
“I just pictured the kids in mind—their faces, their strengths, their cute little personalities, and I just needed to get back to those little faces. I needed them far more than they needed me,” she recalled.
Just over a week after being released from the hospital, Dale returned to school to visit her students, where Huntsman waited to announce her award.
“I told her she should work half days for a while,” said Jones. “But she informed me she’d be doing full days.”
Miss Karma was back in front of the chalkboard full time the following Monday. At Friday’s presentation she’ll be given a crystal trophy and a check for $10,000. Dale says she plans to put the money toward medical expenses and a better used car.
Dale’s students will finish the school year by finalizing school memory books that they’ve compiled all year. But their relationship with her won’t end with first grade.
“After I’ve taught the kids they’re locked in my heart forever,” she said.
Dale says she regularly attends recitals and graduations. Former students stop by to check in with her often. Several have grown up and entered the teaching field. Dale says she has no plans to retire, but when she does retire, she’ll probably return to the preschool, since she can’t imagine not teaching children.
Her focus is firmly on the present where, in her brightly decorated classroom, students are thrilling to a flannel board story about corn and flowers.
“Do you think it’s kind of a miracle that this tiny of a seed can grow this big a flower?” She asks them.
“Yes,” come the wide-eyed responses, as if with an inkling that planting good seeds is Miss Karma’s specialty.
Last year was Miss Karma’s last at Rose Springs, but she will continue touching lives as an LDS missionary. I would humbly ask you to consider donating to a GiveForward account to help cover the costs. We hope to present the funds to her at her retirement party on September 22nd. So please join me in paying it forward to Miss Karma for all that she has done for our children and community!