After 16 years of teaching special education students and leading Columbia High School’s student council to national recognition, Linda Pickett is retiring.
“I think I’ve done everything I could possibly do with this job,” Pickett said. “I think I’m leaving this place a better place than when I started.”
Pickett began working in Columbia in 2003. Before that, she was a music therapist in psychiatric hospitals.
She also taught two years in Augusta, Ga., and two years as a long-term substitute teacher in the Waterloo school district.
She had been out of education for some time when she came to Columbia because her son needed five surgeries to fix congenital heart problems.
She was serving on the Waterloo School Board at the time, but Pickett said she knew there was another excellent, nearby employer.
“The Columbia schools have had an excellent reputation, which I wanted to be a part of,” the 60-year-old recalled.
Pickett, who has a master’s in education, was hired as a learning disabilities resource teacher to teach science and social studies.
She also quickly began working as a co-adviser for student council, an organization Pickett was active in when she was in high school.
As her career progressed, becoming sole adviser to the council and teaching math, Pickett said she enjoyed it all because she always taught teenagers.
“You can be real with them and, for some of the kids I’ll be the last teacher they ever have,” she said of why she prefers that age group. “So it’s important for me to make an impact and motivate and inspire them to do what they were meant to do.”
Over her tenure, Pickett said she had numerous highlights both as teacher and student council adviser as she strove to do that.
“When some of the LD kids who truly struggle and then are able to grasp a concept or get a job and really be successful, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “I’m really proud of the kids when they are able to do that.”
She also singled out developing the first Leadership 101 class at CHS as a teaching highlight.
As for student council, Pickett credited her students and co-workers with helping the group win awards, which was never her goal.
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing kids grow through student council as leaders and build self-confidence,” Pickett said. “I’ve received awards, but I don’t want to say it’s because I deserved them. It’s because of the support I’ve received from my co-workers and my administrators who say ‘yes, you can do these activities’ and my kids who step up and say ‘yes, I can do that.’”
For her service to the student council, Pickett was named the Warren E. Shull High School National Student Council of the Year Award in 2015 and, more recently, the Hank Clark Memorial Award.
That award goes to advisers who contribute to student councils and student success at local, district, state and national levels.
The student council itself was also recognized for a decade of excellence because it has won the National Gold Council of Excellence Award for 10 years straight. CHS is one of only 17 schools in the nation to earn that honor.
Despite all that recognition, Pickett said her favorite part of her job was learning from the students.
“I think this is why I teach special ed: I always believe in the underdog,” she explained. “People say, ‘oh, they’re not going to graduate or they’re not going to be able to do this.’ And it only makes me want to dig my heels in more and say, ‘no, we’re going to do this.’ I think that’s probably the most fun and gratifying thing.”
The job has offered difficulties, too, including “kids who are so unmotivated that you can’t do anything” and curriculum changes.
“Common Core with special ed students is a true challenge,” Pickett said. “The way Common Core is designed on the high school level, it’s really a struggle for kids with a disability.”
Still, Pickett said she will miss her work, particularly the people she interacts with and the day-to-day parts of the job.
She plans to stay busy in retirement, however, as she will work part-time with the National Association of Student Councils as a national trainer of the Raising Student Voice sand Participation program.
That program, which has been at CHS for a few years, asks students to list their favorite thing about their school and one thing they would change with the aim to fix that problem.
On top of that, Pickett plans to volunteer with other organizations.