Educator Kathy O'Brien retires

Cathy Decker

After 26 years working for Black Hawk College's Aledo Learning Center, Kathy O'Brien of Aledo is retiring. Her staff organized a surprise party Monday, June 22. She is not a party person and did not expect many of her students to show up for this party. Volunteer Amy Freeman and secretary Sandy Fausett, prepared for plenty of visitors, with three cakes and punch. Kathy's last day of work was Wednesday, June 24.

Kate and Rachel, her two oldest daughters came down to Aledo for the occasion, bringing along four of her grandchildren, including the youngest one, Quinn, who was born Thursday, June 18, 2009. Kathy's middle son, Matt, is getting married on Saturday, June 27. Kathy's twins, Michael and Andrew could not make the party.

"I remember many of my students," says O'Brien. She has helped more than 500 students obtain their GED diploma in her 26 years working as a teacher here in Aledo.

In the 1980s she said her classes would often include 20 people. Each student comes in with his or her own agenda. She said the youngest student she had was 16, while the oldest was 86. In order to pass the GED test, students had to pass a battery of strident tests including writing, science, social studies, reading and math. Through the years, the tests have gotten harder, mirroring the type of work students who stay in high school have to do. There are not only multiple choice test questions, but students also are required to write an essay and use a calculator.

"The stringent part is either they know it or they don't know it," she said.

This kind of teaching involves using old adages, like 'if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.'

"Some people have had to test and retest several times," she said. She said that many students come in initially for help with math.

Kathy has actually been a teacher for 40 years. While there are many individuals who have taught for long periods of time, Kathy's story is unique -- She is legally blind.

"It started about 30 years ago," she said. "Most of my eyesight has been lost gradually."

She said she still can see some -- peripherally. "I'm legally blind, but I say I'm visually impaired." Technology, including specialized computer software has made it possible for her to continue working.

She started teaching in Monmouth, where she grew up. She next taught at Lake Villa, up near Chicago. "I started with high school English and ended up with kindergarten." In between she also was a substitute teacher.

"We moved to this area in 1977," she said. Shortly after moving to Aledo she began teaching GED classes.

Each student's progress is unique and really up to him or her.

She said that her blindness may have helped create bonds with her students.

"It erased the line between student and teacher," she said.

She said the loss of some of her eyesight made her dependent on the students. "It really bonded me to the students. They've helped me and been patient with me."

Through these 26 years she's made friends with many of her students.

She calls all the students who have passed through her door "extraordinary people."

Each has a story, a challenge and as adults it is their choice to move forward. "Most have faced a lot of challenges and the fact that they've come in says a lot," she said.

The length of time it takes to pass the GED test varies depending on the motivation. "We're constantly trying to assess and diagnose," she said. But in the end the work needs to be done by the student. "Some come every day and do their homework. Some come in sporadically, or just study when they are in class," she said.

Others take homework with them and work on it there.

"We try to do as much as we can as a group, which is sometimes difficult.

That's why I make individual packets for the students so they can work at their own pace."

"In adult ed environment students are responsible for their own learning," she said.

Many of her former students have continued their learning by going on to college. "Nobody stops learning," she said. "I absolutely have been blessed."

Kathy's plans for the future include spending more time with her four granddaughters and two grandsons. She also has a friend living in Branson she plans to visit.

"It's a new chapter in my life. There's no trauma or sadness. It's just a new point in my life and I'm going to enjoy it."