“I loved kindergarten. I can still remember the smell of the puzzles,” Lin Riggio said, pulling up the only adult-sized chair in the brightly lit, carpeted classroom.
A wooden treehouse-like loft, decorated with numbers and signs in vibrant primary colors, rises up from the right hand corner of the room.
“It was where I always wanted to be,” Riggio continued. “And then as I got older, I wanted to make sure that kids really liked school, and so I figured I could do that.”
Riggio retires this week from Point Defiance Elementary School after a 48-year tenure as a kindergarten teacher in Tacoma. Though she’s worked at several other schools in the area, Room 7 at Point Defiance Elementary has been her home for more than 30 years.
“I just always felt loved,” Riggio explained, recalling her reasons for wanting to become a teacher. “I especially like working with children because they’re so honest, and they love you for good reasons. They tell you the truth; you tell them the truth. You can learn everything from them.”
Riggio, who turns 70 this year, certainly seems like she was born to be a kindergarten teacher.
“I’m kind of shy around adults,” she confessed, but she greets her students and their parents with an unreserved warmth and thoughtfulness.
Kristopher Kerns, the previous vice-president of Point Defiance Elementary’s Parent Teacher Association, fondly recalled how Mrs. Riggio greeted him and his son for his first day of kindergarten.
“She walks up to us and she hands us these little goody bags. Inside it had a little handwritten note (about how) it’s so important to allow your kid to grow and pursue an education, and a hershey kiss and a tissue,” Kerns said.
“Right away we knew how comfortable our kids were going to be.”
Changes over 50 years
While her love for teaching and her students has never wavered, Riggio is less than thrilled about some of the changes taking place in the education system, especially the emphasis on standardized testing.
“What they used to learn in kindergarten was colors, shapes, social, (and) nap time,” she said.
While kindergarteners don’t have to take as many tests as children in higher grades, the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills is required for students in state-funded, full-day kindergarten classes.
Kindergarten teachers observe their students’ proficiencies in areas including development, learning and socializing as well as math, literacy and cognitive skills. Teachers then take an inventory of the student’s skills in October.
“It’s too much testing,” Riggio said. “It takes away from our teaching time. All the teachers would agree … If you’re a good teacher, you know every child in your class and you know what they know.”
As part of the new kindergarten curriculum, students also need to learn how to read, write and do some basic math. Riggio has embraced the emphasis on reading. Within the first weeks in her class, students learn to read a book a day.
Commitment to the school
Throughout her years at Point Defiance Elementary, Riggio has put extra effort into helping students with disabilities.
“I love having special ed children in my classroom,” Riggio explained. “In the beginning there weren’t many children integrated in, and I was one of the first to allow them … to come in and work in my classroom.”
She’s donated her own money to fund projects the school needs, including a sensory room for students with learning disabilities, to help them unwind as part of their therapy.
Riggio’s emphasis on helping special ed students stay in public schools and keeping them in her classroom has been especially important work, she said.
Last year, King 5 reported that only 5 percent of students in Washington with intellectual disabilities spend most of their day in regular classrooms. Out of the rest of the country, only Nevada and Illinois have worse rates of inclusion.
Riggio also recently donated $10,000 to the school to help re-do the kindergarten playground.
“She always puts the kids first,” Kerns said.
Riggio doesn’t like to talk about her impact.
“I had a big retirement party. I was afraid nobody would come,” she said. “It was a week ago last Thursday, and there were 100 to 150 people there … I’m not famous at all, but I’m known for something good, and that makes me feel good.”
Throughout her years in Tacoma, Riggio has taught generations of parents and their children.
“I haven’t had a grandchild yet (though),” she said.
Parents and students who will miss Mrs. Riggio next year don’t need to worry. She plans to continue spending time at the school.
“I’ll be back next year to volunteer. People say, ‘Won’t it be hard to walk away on the last day?’ No, because I’ll be back.” Riggio said. “This is my life.”