The principal at Fort Riely's Ware Elementary School celebrates 40 years in education.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Deb Gustafson has been the principal at Ware Elementary School for 17 years, but she never imagined she would become a teacher.

"I didn't set out to be an educator," she said. "I wanted to work in law enforcement, but my path went through education. What drives me every day is there is always someone to help. It's either a teacher or a child. There's always someone who needs you and needs your mentoring and guidance."

This school year marks 40 years Gustafson has worked in Unified School District 475. She has deep roots in the Geary County community. Her father was the sheriff when she was growing up.

"As a kid, I grew up in the jail at 9th and Franklin, that's where I grew up because the living quarters were actually in the jail. We were the last family that they required to live there," Gustafson said.

She said she became an educator because she wanted to make a difference.

She started in 1977 as a principal's secretary at Junction City High School. Since then, she has been a secretary, custodian and principal at a variety of elementary schools in the district including Franklin and Sheridan.

After working as a secretary and custodian, she finally decided to earn her teaching degree after some encouragement from fellow staff.

"I had a principal by the name of Jim Weis and he was very encouraging," she said. "He saw my work when I interacted with the kids … and he was just very encouraging and told me I should think about going back to school. The real catalyst was the superintendent named Max Heim at the time. He would stop by my desk and he would just always make jokes like 'Deb, you need to run a school.'"

She worked full time as the secretary at Franklin Elementary while she attended night and summer courses.

While the years have begun to run together for Gustafson, she recalled becoming a teacher in 1987 or 1988, she can't remember specifically. At the time, Max Heim was still the superintendent.

"He just kept stopping by my classroom and encouraging me," she said.

Immediately after graduating with her bachelor's degree, Gustafson began work on her master's degree to become a principal.

In 1992, she became the principal at Lincoln Elementary. She was there for 10 years, but the final three years she was also the principal at Grandview Elementary.

In 2001, she became the principal at Ware Elementary.

"That year is easy to remember because I had taken over that school in August 2001 and the towers were hit and everything changed at Fort Riley after that day," she said.

Gustafson finished her doctorate in educational leadership in 2005 and began teaching classes at Kansas State University.

Gustafson is eligible for retirement, but said she is not ready to give up.

"I still feel the impact that I'm making," she said. "I've always seen that as my role, to be very caring and compassionate, but to have really high expectations."

Ware Elementary has about a 30 percent turnover rate for teachers annually.

Gustafson said she tends to hire first-year students because she enjoys creating and molding them into educators.

"That is challenging because you are constantly rebuilding your culture and sharing your vision," she said. "That's some of the synergy that keeps me motivated."

The turnover in students on post is greater -- 50 percent.

"We don't ever see a kid start kindergarten and be a fifth grader," she said. "The way I look at it and the way I teach my staff to look at it is you have to make an impact right now, because you don't have next year. If they have gaps in first grade, you don't have them in third grade to fix it. This has got to be their year. This has to be the best year they have because you have no promises of tomorrow."

Gustafson said her passion now lies in coaching future educational leaders.

"My passion now is helping other grow," she said. "In the district, everything we do from the superintendent on down has to be tied to making good decisions for kids. I hope that I'm good at helping others do that."