With tears, cheers and applause from the gathered convocation, Fort Stewart Kessler Elementary School’s ranking Eagle soared to the retirement nest during a brunch May 25 at Club Stewart.
Principal Dr. Djuna Crowder was feted during the event by colleagues, friends and family for her more than 30 years of service with the Department of Defense Education Activity, starting as a teacher and ending as an administrator.
Crowder began teaching in 1997 as a third-grade teacher at Mendel Elementary School on Yokota Air Force Base, Japan. She then served 11 years as a counselor at Yokota AFB, before moving to Sollars Elementary School in Misawa, Japan in 2009 to be the assistant principal.
Then, in 2011, Crowder made her final move, serving her final 12 years as the Kessler Elementary School “Eagles” principal.
Darry Farmer, Crowder’s brother and a retired educator himself, was the featured speaker for the event. He called becoming a principal going to the “dark side” because teachers grow quiet around leaders.
“When you come to the dark side of administration, when you walk into the teachers’ lounge, everyone stops talking,” he joked.
When Crowder became an administrator, she and Farmer would often talk about children educational theory and classroom management tactics. Those conversations often highlighted the differences between elementary and high school, but each left the conversations with new ideas on how to approach their jobs and teach children, Farmer said.
For Crowder, her fondest memories all circle around teaching students. When she needed a pause from the responsibilities of being a leader, she would always go back to the children and center herself.
“Whenever I would get overwhelmed with work and paper I would disappear in a kindergarten classroom or a first-grade classroom and just sit and do center work with them and just have fun with kids,” Crowder said.
Embracing the children first mindset and being an agent for change in a child’s life is what makes being a teacher rewarding, Crowder said. A resilient mindset is important, too.
“You’re going to have good days,” she said. “You will have bad days. Lots of times a beginning teacher may get frustrated and not want to continue but just hang in there. It will get better and you will make a difference.”
Johnnie Sledge, special education assessor for all schools on post, started working with Crowder in 2011. Sledge said Crowder brought changes and was intrigued to see what would happen. After that initial assessment, Sledge knew Crowder was a good fit.
“Once we go to know her, we understood her and we knew that, overall, she was definitely focused on the kids, families and staff,” Sledge said.
Anita Harvin served at Kessler Elementary with Crowder as a fourth-grade teacher from 2011 to 2015. Her first impression of Crowder was how friendly and outgoing she was. She was also nurturing of her staff, listening to problems and getting to the bottom of them.
Harvin said Crowder was known to spread her wings over her staff to shield them, too.
“She made sure we were protected sometime from unfriendly parents,” she said.
For Sledge, he fondest memory with Crowder was the end-of-year gathering. Usually held at Fort Stewart’s Holbrook Pond recreation area, the event was an opportunity to relax and recharge.
“We just let go of the teacher in us and just had fun,” she said.
But being a teacher is serious work, and not always fun. Challenges would rise up that had to be overcome.
Many of those challenges Crowder saw, especially as a principal, are driven by changes in generations and in society.
“We’re getting a different group of kids, a different group of parents,” she said. “They’re all struggling. We’re still struggling with the whole COVID situation, trying to catch kids up and getting them used to following a routine. There are so many different needs for children and parents now.”
Another challenge was deployments, Harvin said. Crowder and her staff would often gather during the deployments to ensure children were being taken care of, emotionally and academically.
“We just did a lot as a staff to create situations to make them happy, to be there for them,” Harvin said. “Dr. Crowder was always leading the pack if there was an activity going on. You could count on her to be there. She was the children and staff’s biggest cheerleader.”
While challenging, the deployments were also Harvin’s fondest memory of working with Crowder. Crowder took the time to check in with her staff, too, by talking with them.
“We would chat about what was going on with us,” Harvin said. “Because we were affected, too.”
One of the activities were Crowder lead the pack and built morale was by impersonating the late Tina Turner during a talent show at Kessler Elementary School. The video of the performance was played during the brunch. On screen, Crowder is dancing and singing the Queen of Rock and Roll’s “Proud Mary” to full effect. Watching, the audience cheered, laughed and applauded Crowder’s dedication and showmanship.
“That’s how you hurt your back,” quipped one of the gathered Kessler staff, which was also met with laughter and cheers.
Happy tears flowed during the brunch, too. The corners of Harvin’s eyes glistened remembering Crowder’s career and contributions, as well as her own career.
“I miss that part of the career, the teachers, the children,” Harvin said. “I have some fond memories because it was a good solid staff.”
Harvin’s advice to Crowder joining her retirement was “enjoy life.”
“If there’ something you want to do or someplace you want to go, do it,” she said. “You just don’t realize how much stress she’s not going to have, not being in the building.
Farmer echoed the reduction in stress during his speech. He said retirement would be full of “no-mores.” No more bells and tones, no more meetings, no more audits, no more needs assessments, no more test score reviews, he said. The biggest no-more?
“Also, no more 20-minute lunches,” he said. “Now, you get to have a lunch!”
Sledge also hopes Crowder will have the opportunity to relax in her retirement, catching up on her reading and gardening. Still, Sledge is sure Crowder will be seen in the halls of Kessler Elementary School again.
“I’m pretty sure she’ll still come back and forth or be involved because no teacher I know has completely let go of it when they retire,” Sledge said. “We hope to see her come up and visit us.”
Right now, Crowder plans on taking time for herself at home. At some point, she may pursue another career. But Crowder will always remain a teacher at heart, no matter where her future flies her.
“I can’t imagine myself doing anything else but being an educator,” she said.