School of Education Alumni Achievement Award goes to Carol Charismas
Carol Charismas (B.A. ’67, M.A. ’70) began teaching in 1966 in the Raytown School District. Despite leaving the field to pursue other ventures over the course of her career, she always came back to education. At the age of 72, Charismas credits Nelson Mandela for inspiring her to return to the classroom full-time.
She taught seventh-grade English classes at Paseo Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, and currently teaches third and fourth graders at Padre Pio Academy in Shawnee, Kansas. A former principal described her as one of the most dedicated teachers he has known — devoting her time to ensure that underserved students have a welcoming classroom.
Charismas recently discussed her career achievements with UMKC:
You’ve spent time and your own money to ensure that students are getting a welcoming and safe learning environment. Where does your passion for educating children come from? How did your experiences at UMKC influence that?
Studies have shown that our physical environment directly influences both how we feel and how we think. That includes me! So, I do not profess to be altruistic when I create an uplifting and comfortable classroom. If I am at peace — surrounded by soothing colors, beautiful artwork, and comforting flowers and plants — then I am inspired to teach more effectively. If I teach with greater vigor and enthusiasm, my students benefit: they, too, are energized and motivated. Regardless of “outside influences” my classroom changes into an oasis of learning. Most students appreciate and benefit from a tranquil atmosphere that promotes deeper levels of contemplation. In fact, at Lincoln Academy 12 of my students spent their spring break painting our classroom. The results were amazing!
You have always focused on underserved students. What drives that commitment for you?
I never thought about any of my students being “underserved.” Regardless of their economic or social status, I recognize in each child an innate, inalterable gift which demands accountability: free will. Thus, I hold each student to high personal as well as academic standards. We must play with the cards we are dealt. If that sounds harsh, then, consider the option: allowing a child to bemoan their fate and crawl through life crying the bitter tears of self-pity and resentment. Rather, teachers must encourage their students to embrace life and, if they are displeased with their lot, strive to transform it, accepting the formidable challenges that transfiguration demands. We must call forth the riches of our life despite the outward appearances of poverty. We’re here on planet earth to work: a “free” ride is not “free;” it’s dehumanizing! Students need to learn that lesson in school to prepare for the harsh realities of adult life. In his book, Dumbing Down Our Kids, Educator Charles Sykes says as a number-one rule: “Life’s not fair — get used to it!” Amen!
Over the course of your career, you’ve pursued other ventures outside of teaching but always returned. What is it about teaching that kept you coming back?
Teaching is a vocation, not a job. Regrettably, it is a calling that doesn’t pay well. And, although pursuing one’s vocation is significantly important, having a financially lucrative job to support a family is of greater consequence. As a single parent, I could not provide for my two children in the way I preferred. In 1981, my first year as a real estate agent, my salary was double what I would have made as a teacher that year. In the last 10 years of my career, during which time I raised two grandsons, I averaged over $150,000 per year. When, as teenagers, they returned to their father, my need for money and material possessions diminished. I retired from real estate, sold my house, my car, most of my furniture and spent three years in total seclusion completing a book of poetry that had been on my heart for many decades. And, I made zero money! But it was the best three years of my life. Then, when a job became available at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in 2006, I returned to teaching again — my second love. The income was sufficient, the students were delightful, and I was emotionally and intellectually challenged.
What is your favorite UMKC memory?
My senior year at UMKC I rented a room on the third floor of a house at 53rd and Main. Another student, Heidi Fritz, rented the room across the hall. Four other students lived on the second floor. There was a hall bathroom on each floor, but none of us had access to the first floor. However, we could go to the basement where there was a refrigerator and a small gas stove. Heidi was from Germany and she had no family in Kansas City; so, for Thanksgiving, she decided to cook dinner in that dingy, dim, creepy basement. She invited me to join her. It was the best Thanksgiving feast I ever had — in the nastiest atmosphere. Who could believe it?
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment is having sacrificed almost all of my material possessions to “buy” three years to complete a book of poetry. Having the courage to follow my dream and see it to fruition — even though it still sits in manuscript form — makes me unbelievably happy.