ARCADIA — When Gwen Camp was a young teacher, her school principal told her, "I would rather scrub floors or take in wash than teach kindergarten."
The principal simply could not deal with younger children, Camp said. "Either you love teaching kindergarten or you hate it, and I love it."
She became a kindergarten teacher and now, 40 years and 2,000 students later, Camp is retiring--with no regrets about her choice of career.
John Hart, her principal at Longley Way School, said, "I believe Gwen's greatest contribution has been her ability to assess each youngster's readiness for learning. This skill has enabled her to develop self-confidence in her students and to launch them successfully into first grade."
Guest of Honor at Dinner
Camp will be honored at a dinner by the Arcadia Unified School District at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Aztec hotel in Monrovia. Tickets cost $20 and reservations can be made with Lois Chmurski at 303-3666 through Tuesday.
Camp, 60, has taught for the last 30 years at Longley Way. She has had six pupils whose parents she also taught. Debra Jean Abdessian was a Camp pupil 22 years ago and her son Daniel is one now. "She was the motherly type, and I felt very comfortable with her because she could relate to the level of 5-year-olds," Abdessian said. "She is able to instill discipline in kids through love. I feel she was just made to be a teacher."
Camp says she actually taught only 39 years because she had seven years at Santa Anita School, a year's maternity leave and two years teaching in St. Louis.
Camp has seen many changes in kindergarten children and her profession. The children now are three grade levels ahead of where they were 40 years ago, she said.
'Much More Sophisticated'
"The children know more now when they enter kindergarten, either because of television or because they have gone to preschool," Camp said. "They are much more sophisticated than their parents were. Because many have been to nursery school, they get used to school and learn 'socialization' skills and how to play. And now they learn to read and write.
"At the end of the year most of the children are ready to at least begin sounding out words, and one-fourth to one-third are reading.
"But we still have a balance between the old-fashioned fun things like games and singing and the academic things like reading and writing."
Camp cites parent involvement as another big change, brought about by tight school budgets. Although there are more working mothers now, many who do not work are eager to help at the school, she said.
"We used to have paid teacher aides, but now we have volunteer mother aides, and it is such a joy working with the parents. At first we were worried that the parents would be critical of teachers, but instead they are more appreciative of the teachers," she said.
Limit on Class Size
Camp sees the changes as positive--with the exception of class size. "I would like to see a limit of 25 children to a class. Just five extra children make a big difference in teaching." Until 15 years ago she taught 60 children each year--30 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. Since then, she has had only 30 in one longer class.
But she believes that 30 in one class is still too many. "If you have more kids, there are that many more who need extra attention. You have to put more time and energy into some children than others."
Camp said she originally became interested in kindergarten because she played the piano and music was an important part of the curriculum. "Once into it, I loved the characteristics of kindergarten children. At age 5, children want to please and are thrilled with being introduced to learning. Once they turn 6, which some do while in kindergarten, they become restless."
Camp is an innovator. Her proudest achievement came 10 years ago when she introduced a series of books, "Beginning to Read, Write and Listen," into her classroom. "Until then we didn't have any specific academic materials. The series covers phonics and printing and can be adapted to either readers or non-readers. Now it is used throughout the district."
But she is strongly traditional in one area. She is so opposed to teacher militancy that she dropped her membership in the Arcadia Teachers Assn., which represents teachers in dealing with the district, after a contract dispute last year.
"There was no walkout but some teachers at the junior high didn't show up for open house, and I wouldn't have done this," she said. "Teachers do have to be concerned about their self-interest because the pay is not good, but I would in no way strike, because of my traditional background."
Camp, who lives in Arcadia, is still enthusiastic about her work and that is why she is leaving now. "I wanted to quit while I still love it."
Some Exhausting Days
She does admit there are days when she goes home exhausted. "But I am an understanding person, and that helps me see kids the way they are."
She is equally enthusiastic about how she will spend her retirement--traveling. She and her husband Hal, a semiretired minister, will leave soon after the end of school June 14 for a trip to New York. Later that month her daughter is being married in Idaho. And since there no longer is any need to travel only in the summer, the Camps will wait until fall before a trip to the Far East.
Camp looks forward to being a housewife, a role she said she never had a chance to try.
She will miss teaching, of course. As a little girl and as a teacher, she said, "I always loved school."