Kathi Ruziecki knew by the age of eight, that she wanted to be a teacher. She had come from a family of educators and made up her mind early to follow that path.
After nearly three decades she has closed the teacher chapter of her life, retiring from McGaugh Elementary School. Like many teachers, Ruziecki remembers the beginning of her career as a tough road. But after getting her feet under her, she looks back on a career that brought her joy. She said she has always loved books and in particular, children’s books.
So, the road to teaching elementary school age children was a natural course for her. She spent most of her career at Weaver Elementary School in Rossmoor, before moving to McGaugh for the final six years. Much of her work has been in younger grades, such as first grade, where students first learn to read and write. And those were the moments that she loved most.
“To see them light up … just the growth you see,” she said of what brought her joy in her work.
As a first-grade teacher at McGaugh, Principal Roni Ellis said that Ruziecki transformed the school’s first grade program. As a veteran teacher, Ruziecki’s colleagues say she provided a textbook example of structure, strategies and self-efficacy that allowed children to succeed. Ellis referred to Ruziecki’s ability to structure a class as “instructional magic,” but more than that, Ellis said that beyond teaching subjects, Ruziecki was a master of all aspects of teaching children, a challenge that can be tough.
“You deal with all the other social emotional issues with children,” Ellis said.
Initially, Ruziecki began as a part-time instructor at a child development center. When Weaver Elementary opened in 1996, she was one of six teachers who were hired on to the small campus. The principal was on site part time, so the group of teachers were essentially left to develop the school culture on their own. One of her colleagues at the time was Alysha Brendel. Brendel remembers the school had little outside of classrooms, but the small faculty was excited to teach, despite the challenges. While the task was tough, Brendel said it developed a long working relationship and friendship with Ruziecki.
“We still laugh with tears in our eyes over the stories from those first years together,” Brendel said.
Brendel also echoed the sentiment that Ruziecki doesn’t just teach curriculum, but the whole child. She said that she has not met a finer educator and that it’s probably why she followed her to McGaugh when she transferred over.
“Kathi is a true example of someone who has mastered the art of teaching; give her the standards and she does the rest … thoughtfully, creatively, and with passion,” Brendel said.
Brendel noted Ruziecki’s attitude towards education made her a natural leader and that her skills at collaboration made her a valued team member. Teri Malpass, another former colleague, who now teaches in Fountain Valley also spoke of Ruziecki’s leadership and collaboration. She said there was always a purpose and intent to everything she did in the classroom. She also noted that while Ruziecki was an advocate for children, she never voiced concerns without first coming up with an alternative option.
“I would definitely say she is a problem solver,” Malpass said.
Malpass said that Ruziecki had a calm demeanor that allowed her to make children and their parents feel comfortable in her class. Brendel’s son was in Ruziecki’s class as a kindergartener and first grader. She said her son adored her and it made her feel secure in the fact that her son would move forward with confidence and as a skillful learner. Malpass said those traits are probably what also make Ruziecki a wonderful mom and grandmother.
“It’s just who she is,” Malpass said.
Ruziecki and her husband Jim have three adult sons, whom they raised in Huntington Beach. Her oldest son, Jeff, is the only one currently working in education, as a teacher and baseball coach at Huntington Beach High. Brian is a financial planner and Eric is a police officer.
While Ruziecki became a master teacher, according to her colleagues, she also remembers her early days, when the learning curve can be brutal. The challenge of developing classroom management skills can often be tough. She remembers specifically, some of the veteran teachers, such as Gina Tardis, who took her under her wing, but said that everywhere she went she found mentors to help her along. But she really cherishes the time she spent learning alongside friends like Brendel and Malpass. It’s probably why they still have a strong bond to this day.
“We became so close and helped each other through it,” Ruziecki said.
While Ruziecki is riding off into the sunset from her career, her husband is still working. But she said they are hoping to travel and would like to see as many National Parks as they can. The couple also has seven grandchildren, which could occupy some of her time.
Ruziecki said she will miss her friends and the children. However, even if they don’t realize it, students and families are likely to miss having her. Brendel said having her son in Ruziecki’s class was a gift.
“I will forever be grateful for that gift, as will hundreds of other parents and students who were lucky enough to have ‘Mrs. Ruziecki’,” Brendel said.