NORMAN — As part of a group essay assignment, a fourth-grade class at Norman’s Jefferson Elementary described their principal, Dr. Kathy Taber.
“Mrs. Taber is tall, skinny and sophisticated with blonde hair like sunlight on sand,” the essay reads. “Sophisticated means dressing fancy and acting mature ... she is strict like a police officer and very smart.”
Hand-written on a large poster, the essay hangs in Taber’s soon-to-be vacated office, framed by pencil-smudged sheets of notebook paper containing the individual essays that each student submitted.
“One phrase that really gets me is ‘she makes me feel safe, she keeps my sister safe,’” Taber said, surveying the fourth graders’ masterpiece.
Taber’s 35-year career as an educator in the Norman Public School district has been almost exclusively devoted to serving the students and teachers of Jefferson. Now in her 23rd year as Jefferson’s principal, Taber will be the longest-serving principal in the district’s history upon her retirement in June.
“I feel very fortunate, there have been many people at crucial points in my life that had a very positive effect on me, namely my family and my husband,” Taber said.
A third-generation educator, Taber describes the influence of her parents, particularly her father’s constant reading, as instrumental in inspiring her career choice.
“A good teacher is always learning. There’s a certain excitement that comes with a group of people learning — be it children or adults — and I love being a part of that,” Taber said. “Over the years, I’ve considered different positions as they’ve become available and whether I’d enjoy a different opportunity, but I always come back to this. I love this school and I love how the staff truly care about children.”
Taber was initially reluctant to take on the position that ultimately defined her career, saying she didn’t want to leave classroom teaching at the time.
“I never intended to be principal, but the position became available during my internship and I had a major shift of perspective during that time, in which I realized a principal is a teacher with a much bigger classroom,” Taber said.
As a leader and educator, Taber’s years of interacting with young children have afforded valuable lessons, both serious and amusing.
“My first day, I was teaching fourth grade. I thought that if you show children respect, then they’ll show you respect, and I quickly found that they need kindly enforced boundaries,” Taber said, smiling. “Always be caring, compassionate, patient and calm, but hold fast to rules and be firm. Emotional stability is crucial.”
Though not always enjoyable, playing the role of kind disciplinarian has had its gems.
“Jefferson was the pilot pre-kindergarten school, and working with 4-year-olds was a whole new experience for us. One little boy just didn’t understand that rocks are supposed to stay on the ground. We instructed him many times, but he didn’t listen,” she said. “Finally he was in my office and I told him, ‘If you keep picking up rocks, we’ll have to call your mom.’ He crossed his arms, very indignant and said, ‘If you call my mom I’ll tell.’ ‘Tell who?’ ‘My mom.’”
Taber said that the opportunity to talk one-on-one with students has been an opportunity unique to her position to instruct and nurture children who especially need it.
“Kids can share things with me one-on-one that their teachers may be unable to address as they take care of the entire classroom. Establishing a relationship with students is so crucial and cannot be forced, but that’s where you’re truly able to make a difference in a child’s life,” Taber said.
Another crucial aspect, Taber said, is collaboration.
“The first principal I worked for was very collaborative, and that practice is all I’ve known. She was the first to encourage me to pursue administration.”
Looking ahead, Taber said her decision to retire this year was based on a desire for more flexible schedules and time to spend with family. She said she will continue part-time work in local education.
“My second year as a principal, the NPS administrators told me, ‘We don’t intend to keep you here forever,’ and I said, ‘Don’t move me yet; there’s more to be done.’ I’m grateful they let me stay so long,” Taber said.