BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Karen Riedl, a special education inclusion kindergarten teacher at Berkeley Elementary School, has retired. Her final day was Dec. 23.
Riedl grew up in Rutherford and attended St. Mary High School and Fairleigh Dickinson University, both in her hometown. She received her special education certification from Bloomfield College. Her desire to pursue teaching was nurtured by another educator.
“I had a very influential teacher in high school,” she said. “She was my teacher, but we became friends and she encouraged me to go into teaching, which was a surprise because I was so shy.”
Another influence was her paternal grandfather.
“He was a publisher in the early 1900s,” she said. “He got me into a love of writing and reading, which I brought to my students, even in kindergarten.”
Riedl was a student-teacher in Verona, and her first job, as a general education teacher, was in Lodi.
“I took time off to raise my two daughters and then came to Bloomfield as a substitution teacher, then a paraprofessional,” she said. “Then I went back for my special ed certification.”
She began working in Bloomfield in 1997 and became a full-time special education teacher in 2004. She worked as a paraprofessional in Franklin Elementary School and then came to Berkeley as a special education teacher. She was hired by Sal Goncalves, the current superintendent of schools.
“Over the years, I have seen a difference in teaching special education,” Riedl said. “There are more demands on testing, and the curriculum now is more intense. Years ago, you didn’t start testing special ed students until the third grade.”
Riedl came to the interview for this story with cutout drawings of popcorn pinned to her blouse. She explained that these were reminders for her students of immediately identifiable, or “popcorn,” words.
“I have a love of reading and writing,” Riedl explained. “Teaching sight words years ago, you just gave the student the word. But I wanted to make teaching sight words more interesting.”
For assistance, she searched the internet and discovered the idea of popcorn words. Examples of these immediately recognizable words are: I, a, look, see, the, are, and.
“The idea was that, every month or so, there’s a new set of 10 words introduced to the students,” she said. “I put the words on construction paper and send them home with the students. I also give the students bags to hold their popcorn words. Many of my students are interested in learning to read. When it motivates them, it motivates me.”
Riedl also said it was important to find out the interests of a student. In small groups, she would then incorporate these interests into a reading lesson.
Riedl said the pandemic had a lot to do with her decision to retire.
“It really changed teaching for me,” she said. “We were out for a year and a half, and we had the masks. To teach reading with a mask is a struggle. When I teach kids I say, ‘How do you say the letter M?’ I show them my lips. I encourage them to feel with their mouth the letter.”
Her husband is also retired, and she has a granddaughter with whom she wants to spend time. So she felt the time to retire was at hand.
“We’re not wearing masks now, but who knows,” she said. “Two months down the road and they might start that again.”
Riedl said she has “this thing” about finding items that have special meaning for her. Two years ago, her husband was painting the living room and replacing the heating ducts.
“The last one he removed and nine pennies fell out,” she said. “Every one of those pennies had a year that meant something important to me.”
A penny found, Riedl said, is a sign that her father and grandfather are reaching out to her. When a dime is found, it is her husband’s grandmother reaching out to her. Quarters are a sign from her mother.
“They’re all pennies from heaven,” she said. “I guess it’s a quarter for my mom because of inflation. I just feel I have a connection to these people who are very important in my life.”
Principal Natashia Baxter said Riedl was a passionate educator who has left an impression on Berkeley students.
“She’s best known for her reading strategies,” Baxter said. “Especially her popcorn words. She will be missed and we wish her well.”