Clackamas River Elementary teacher Joan Lawrence reflects on three decades in Estacada classrooms

ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Joan Lawrence smiles at the bird who lives in her classroom. Lawrence has taught at the Estacada School District for 31 years.

Joan Lawrence doesn't feel like she's spent more than three decades in the Estacada School District unless she reflects on the age of her son, who was a toddler when the family moved to the area. Now, he's 33.

"It doesn't feel like it's been that long," Lawrence mused.

Boasting 31 years in the school district, Lawrence is Estacada's longest-employed elementary school teacher. Lawrence has taught at River Mill Elementary School, Clackamas River Elementary School and Estacada Grade School (the site of which is now Clackamas River Elementary School). In town, she's taught every elementary school grade level except for kindergarten and sixth grade.

Though Lawrence loves her career as a teacher, it isn't what she set out to do when she first started college. After participating in a program in which she was able to watch the United Nations in New York for a week during her high school years, she decided to pursue a degree in developing economics to help third world countries. She earned a full scholarship for her studies at Willamette University.

As part of her program, she completed a practicum in teaching research and fell in love.

She eventually transferred to Western Oregon University to obtain a degree in education — and gave up her full ride scholarship.

"I worked three jobs to pay for college, but I absolutely think I made the right choice," she said. "That would have been an exciting life, but teaching has been a great adventure."

Lawrence briefly taught in Southern California after she and her husband graduated from college, but the couple moved back to Oregon shortly thereafter. She's taught in Estacada ever since.

"The drive here was so gorgeous, and I loved the people I interviewed with," she said. "I thought I'd do it for a year or two, but this is Camelot to me. I'm never leaving."

In her 31 year tenure in the district, Lawrence has seen several changes.

She noted that when she first started teaching in Estacada, there were more students in the school district than there are today.

"There were four elementary schools. There were a lot more people then," she said. "Economically, things were different. (There were a lot more jobs with) logging and the forest service."

She also noted that teaching styles in the district have evolved over the years.

"In the beginning, everything was whole language and very thematic," she recalled. "We picked a theme, like rainforests, and everything tied into that."

Now, she said, the emphasis is on targeted instruction, which focuses on individual student ability levels.

"The subjects still weave together, but they're a little more separated," she added. "(Today,) the expectations are higher. There's so much more to teach the kids."

There are multiple memories that stand out to her as she reflects on her time in the district, though she said it's too difficult to just pick one favorite.

When she was teaching in the old Estacada Grade School parts of her classroom were dilapidated, and a group of her sixth grade students worked to improve them.

"The kids took so much pride in bringing their tools to

school and fixing things," she said. "They really organized the classroom and made it theirs. You respect a space when it's yours and you make it nice."

One student recalled her story of watching the United Nations for a week and eventually earned a spot in the same program.

Another time, she walked outside of her classroom, and a substitute teacher walked out of the room next to hers. The substitute teacher was a former student of hers.

ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Joan Lawrence writes on the whiteboard in her classroom at Clackamas River Elementary School.

She also recalled a student who frequently asked her to brush her hair before assembles who grew up to be a hairdresser.

Though her expertise has expanded over the years and technology has infused its way into her classroom, Lawrence said many would think elements of her teaching style have stayed the same.

"We still sing all the time," she said. "I make the kids sing wacky songs."

For Lawrence, the most rewarding part of being a teacher comes when she's able to support students — academically and otherwise.

"Seeing a stressed out kid relaxed and joining in, that's the most rewarding thing. It doesn't happen every day, but when it does it's pretty special," she said.

In addition to connecting with students, Lawrence also enjoys working with her colleagues.

"(The best part is) the way we're all connected. We love and support each other," she said. "We have a lot of fun and we laugh hard, but we work really hard. Number one, we're here for the kids, and then we're here for each other. That's been the same since I started."

One of Lawrence's favorite part of teaching in Estacada, particularly for as long as she has, is the community's friendly and close-knit nature.

"You get to teach the families of your former students. That's what makes Estacada special. We're a really tight-knit family," she said.

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