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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Accidental teacher

Marshall reading specialist becomes educator after losing job, never looks back

Fort Campbell Courier
Fort Campbell, KY | February 16, 2018

Karyn Oxendine, reading specialist at Marshall Elementary School, helps Sophia Kranz, first grade student, spell
Karyn Oxendine, reading specialist at Marshall Elementary School, helps Sophia Kranz, first grade student, spell "duck" to complete her sentence on the board. Oxendine has been a teacher for 31 years. She had taught third-fifth grade and preschool students. She also has served as a "Reading Recovery" certified teacher and literary coach. | Photo: Mari-Alice Jasper, Fort Campbell Courier

“I have history here, I really do,” said Karyn Oxendine, reading specialist at Marshall Elementary School, who has been teaching military children for 13 years.

“Even as I walk through this campus I think about my father every day and I think, ‘I wonder if he walked this street or that,’” Karyn said. “He was a young Soldier.”

Karyn’s father, Pvt. Henry Peter Oxendine Jr., served in the Army three years. Fort Campbell was his last duty station. Karyn’s mother, Bobbie Croney Oxendine-Hutchins, who is from Hopkinsville, met Peter while he was stationed at Fort Campbell. They married in 1959. Karyn’s older sister, Sheryl, was born at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. After Peter transitioned out of the military in 1960, he and his young Family moved back to his childhood home, New York City. Soon after, Karyn was born.

“My father died when I was very young, so I don’t really recall him,” she said. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but I’ve lived in every borough of New York City except Staten Island.”

Going places

Karyn said her life changed in the second grade when her mother decided to have Karyn and Sheryl bussed out of Brooklyn to Sheepshead Bay Elementary School to continue their education. In the mid-1970s children were transported to different schools across the district in an attempt to desegregate the New York City Public School System. The ride took about 30 minutes each way. Karyn and Sheryl were initially upset with their mom, because they wanted to go to the local school with their friends.

“When people think of the North, they think of a more liberated, accepting population, but New York City was very segregated when I was growing up,” she said.  “Everyone had their own neighborhoods and that transferred into the schools.”

As an adult, she understands her mother’s decision.

“That was the best thing my mother ever did for us,” Karyn said. “She told us she did it because she wanted us to know how to handle ourselves amongst anyone. She also knew that those were the better schools. She prepared us for the future. She knew that my sister and I were going places. She knew what she was doing for us.”

In a predominantly white, Jewish school, Karyn felt like she stuck out, but she never had any negative experiences. Karyn and her sister later chose to attend Sheepshead Bay Middle and High School. She said she met lifelong friends there who she remains in contact with today.

“[Attending Sheepshead Bay schools] opened my eyes that some people had this black and white hatred thing going on, where they didn’t like people based on their skin color, but that was not my experience,” she said. “Everyone was nice to me.”

Best books to read

Although she grew up in a home filled with books and with a mother who constantly read, Karyn did not develop a passion for reading until she was a sophomore in high school.

“I had this teacher, her name was Mrs. Fitzpatrick. I don’t know if she was Scottish or Irish, but she had the most beautiful accent,” she said. “She gave us some of the best books to read. Not only did we read the books as homework assignments, but she would also read a section to us during class. Just sitting there and listening to her read … I loved every moment of it.”

From that moment, she was hooked on reading.

“I remember as a student, being in classes that didn’t quite hold my interest the way English did, and I would get into trouble because I would have my book right in my lap. The teacher would be teaching and I would be reading under my desk,” she said. “I remember getting a lot of books taken away from me because of that, but my mother didn’t stress me about it too much because it was books.”

Major career change

After graduating high school, Karyn attended a private, all-girls, Catholic college, The College of New Rochelle in New York.

“I was very into the arts and I love to sew, so my first major was costume design. That was my dream job,” she said. “We had to do so many basic classes like sketching and that was not really my strong point.”

By her second year of college, Karyn decided to switch majors, because she struggled with the basic classes in the arts program.

“I changed to be a business major. It was a major career change for me,” she said.

She graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in business administration. She began working for Union Carbide, but after it relocated to Texas, she was left without a job and in need of cash.

“Someone told me I could do substitute teaching with my bachelor’s degree, so I decided to do that until I found a job,” she said. “I never left the school system from that day.”

At first, she did not feel like she was meant to be a teacher, but she slowly realized it was exactly what she needed. Karyn served as a third-fifth grade teacher at Roberto Clemente Elementary School in New York City for 18 years. Karyn is the only teacher in her Family. She completed a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She also became a “Reading Recovery” certified teacher by completing a three-year program at Long Island University through the New York City Public School System.

Karyn worked one-on-one with students who struggled to read for about a decade through the “Reading Recovery” program. After the school system abandoned the program, she served as a literacy coach for the last five years of her career in New York City.

A journey

When Karyn’s mother, who later remarried, decided to leave New York City in 2001 and move to Clarksville, Tennessee, to be closer to her 92-year old mother, Karyn knew it was time to pack up and move away from the city, so she headed south in 2005. She said she knew a little bit about the Fort Campbell and Hopkinsville area from her regular visits to her grandmother’s home.  

“At the time I was raising two boys and I decided I had had enough of New York,” she said. “It was getting hard. After Sept. 11 … life just changed so much. I had a teenager and an 8-month-old baby then. Every time I would come here to visit … I just wanted to stay. I felt like I had a connection here.”

Karyn said she does not regret leaving New York City.

“When my mom left, my oldest son, who is 26 years old now … it was just a tragedy for him and [my mom] too,” she said. “I believe in a tight-knit Family. I was raising my kids and they didn’t have grandma and grandpa anymore and I just felt like we needed to get back to them. It’s been a journey.”

In the fall of 2005, Karyn began her teaching career at Fort Campbell as a preschool teacher at Barkley Elementary School, which was different than anything she had done before. She had never taught anyone that young.

“[Teaching preschool] was part of the change that needed to take place in me,” she said. “I needed to start there. The culture and everything in the Fort Campbell School System was totally different than anything I had ever experienced. The fact that I transitioned with children that young … it was just such a good thing. There is such a closeness in this school system. It’s a close-knit community and coming from New York City, I wasn’t used to that.”

After three years as a preschool teacher she moved on to teach fifth grade at Barkley. When Barsanti Elementary School opened up on post in 2011, she applied to transfer there as a fifth grade teacher. After looking over Karyn’s resume during her interview, the principal asked her if she would be interested in interviewing for a reading specialist position instead.

Karyn served as the reading specialist at Barsanti until 2016 when Marshall opened.

The new Marshall, a 21st Century school, features open classrooms that are designed as grade-level neighborhoods where teachers have the option to close off their classrooms with soundproof dividers. This free-flowing layout is designed to encourage collaboration and stronger communities.

Karyn said she was eager to transfer to Marshall because she was familiar with the open concept.

“I felt like Marshall was the final frontier of learning here at Fort Campbell and I really just wanted to be a part of that movement,” she said. “I see this as an opportunity. I had been reading about this 21st Century teaching and learning … the design is changing and it’s just so new and exciting. That’s really what I’m all about.”

Black woman

Being a positive role model has always been a driving force in Karyn’s career.

“In New York, because of where I taught, it was empowering [to be a black, female teacher]. I was a role model. I was a leader,” she said. “It felt good that the children looked up to me. That someone who looked like them was in the position I was in.”

She strives to set a good example for all the children she works with.

“Yes, I am a woman. I’m a black woman. Even more so though, I am a person and I want to be a good person and a good teacher to children,” she said. “I want to do my best for them.”

Part of being a positive role model, is educating children, especially during Black History Month, she said. For her, this month is a time of happiness, joy and fun. She said the observance is an opportunity to educate everyone about the contributions black Americans have made.

“We really get to show off during Black History Month,” she said. “We introduce the children to people they’ve never heard of before. It’s a chance to tell our story, too. It’s important to tell our story. It’s important for our children to understand the sacrifices and struggles that their people have gone through so they can continue to climb. You won’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve come from.”

Although Karyn’s father died before she was able to get to know him, she still considers herself a military child and a part of the military community.

“I feel more like a military child coming back and teaching in these schools than I ever did growing up,” she said. “I feel what these children feel. I bring with me that ‘I’ve got your back’ attitude and ‘I believe you can’ spirit. I really follow my children, not just in their class with me. I make sure everything is going OK for them in the classroom. I’m fighting for them 100 percent. I’m always in their corner.”

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