Shirley Watkins says her job in education is a “heart” job.
“I tell my parents it’s a heart job, because it really is that,” says the principal of Millennium School in Homewood of her love and enthusiasm for her work with children that comes from the heart.
Soon Watkins will bid good-bye to students, teachers and administrators not just for summer break but the end of her career as she moves into retirement. She’s been in education for 28 years, via a circuitous route.
“When I graduated from Carroll College, I couldn’t find a teacher job, so I worked for the Milwaukee Urban League as a job counselor,” she recalled. Her work put her in touch with leaders at Sears Roebuck & Co. who solicited her for a position as a buyer. She held that position for 10 years before she and her husband moved to Illinois.
“It’s interesting the path your life takes. My experience in retail and sales has really helped me with what I’m doing as an administrator and even as a teacher,” Watkins said.
It took Watkins nine months to find a position as librarian for Lincoln School in Dolton. The next year, she was hired as a fourth grade teacher there and stayed for six years before accepting a fifth grade position in Flossmoor District 161. That lasted a year before she lost her post through a reduction in teaching staff.
“That was a blessing in disguise,” she says. That brought her to a position with District 153 at Willow School. The following year, the district converted from neighborhood schools to grade centers and Watkins transferred to Millennium School to teach fifth grade. A year later, she was named assistant principal, a job she did for five years before being named principal seven years ago.
Watkins set her sights on a teaching career because she wanted to emulate her second grade teacher. Student teaching pointed her in the direction of middle school. The fourth and fifth graders “are just beginning to form their own opinions.
(As a teacher) you have a perfect opportunity to mold their minds. They’re able to think for themselves and make informed decisions,” she explained.
The principal admits leaving the classroom for administrative work was tough.
“The biggest challenge for me that first year mentally was I didn’t have my own little (classroom) brood any more. And then when I sat and reflected on it, I told myself ‘Well, instead of 25 I have 500.’ I still have those one-on-one conversations,” with students, even as an administrator, she said. “It’s odd for me to be sitting here behind a desk because typically I’m out there with them.”
As the school year winds down, Watkins is helping Dave McAtee, Millennium’s dean of students, transition into his new role as principal on July 1.
Leaving will likely be difficult for this life-long lover of education, but Watkins says she’s been thinking about retiring the past four years.
“People ask ‘What are you going to do? Why are you retiring?’ And I say, ‘because I can. ‘ It’s such a blessing to retire from a job that you love. I have the same passion for what I’m doing this morning as when I came the first day on the job.
For retirement, “I’m leaving my plans open. Whatever happens, happens,” she said.
Contact Marilyn Thomas at [email protected]