Karen Latus teaches Spanish at Bearden High School, but her mission is to help kids learn life skills.
“I consider Spanish the platform for what I do, but in the end I’m in the classroom to help kids grow up. We’re learning about how we interact with each other and how we manage our emotions and how we deal with conflict. For me, that’s what it’s about,” she said.
She got an emphatic endorsement for her philosophy last week when she was named Knox County Schools’ High School Teacher of the Year.
A transplanted Michigander who has worked for KCS since 2009 and lived in East Tennessee for nearly 10 years, Latus is a Swiss Army knife of teachers: she has bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and American Sign Language interpreting in addition to Spanish. She also has a master’s degree in social work with a trauma treatment certificate, but has “retired” from another vocation – writing marching band shows and doing color guard choreography.
“I worked to get kids in color guard who needed an adult in their lives to create a close- knit family for them through color guard and help find a way for them to forge an identity for themselves.”
Latus hasn’t coached cross-country and track for a while, either, although she cherished the time she spent doing it.
“I love working with kids who don’t consider themselves athletes but gain more confidence when they see that they can do that,” she said.
She didn’t give up running, though, and finished the Iron Man Chattanooga in 2015 and has a special memory of that day.
“My husband (Matt Disney) proposed to me on the finish line,” she said.
They were married in the Knox County Courthouse last year and are parents to two rescue dogs – a Bernese Mountain Dog named Toblerone and Kona, a labradoodle who also serves as a HABIT (Human Animal Bond In Tennessee) dog at Vine School Health Center.
“I did an internship for my master’s program there, and my former supervisor picks her up with her little work bag with her treats and her toys and her house key in it,” Latus said. “There’s 170 pounds of dog in our house, but they’re great.”
She ended up teaching in Tennessee after hearing about a job opening for a Spanish teacher while visiting a friend who was teaching in Loudon County. She interviewed with the principal, John Bartlett, who said two things that let her know she wanted the job.
“He said he likes to hire the best people he can find, then get out of their way. ‘You seem like the kind of person who, if something isn’t working right, will step in and do something about it. I want you to feel free to do that, too.’”
Bartlett moved on to Bearden in 2008, so it’s no surprise that Latus landed there after her 2013-14 sabbatical, which she said she had to take to figure out what she wanted to do.
“One year, when kids left after their final exams, I sat down at my desk and cried. I really thought I was failing them. I thought about how much things had changed and how much I was able to do in the classroom with these evaluation procedures – people coming into your classroom every single week, having to do things exactly by the number. I couldn’t jump through these hoops and still keep my kids in the forefront. Something had to change. But I was not going to let my kids down…”
That “something” was the fellowship that enabled her to get her master’s and also to take some time off to figure out what to do. She also joined the group of teachers who publicly challenged the ever-increasing testing and “observation” demands being piled on them by the administration.
“I knew I wouldn’t survive another year and would burn out. I knew I wasn’t able to do what my kids needed. So do I keep my job and do what my job was supposed to be? It was almost like those two things were in opposition.”
Nothing is perfect, but Latus is glad she stuck it out.
“Every teacher lives for that ‘Aha!’ moment, when a kid goes, ‘Yeah, OK?’ I love in my classroom when a kid labeled as a bad kid gets the opportunity to see if they want to stick with that definition. I want to challenge them to not accept the labels that have been put on them their whole lives.”