Como-Pickton High School business computer information systems and economics teacher Karen Marts didn’t start out with dreams of setting a classroom on fire. She wanted to be the next Donald Trump.
“I was going to slay the world with my business degree,” Marts said during an interview last week. “It didn’t work out that way.”
During her college career at East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce), the 1976 Cumby High School graduate changed majors a few times. She began in pre-nursing, migrated to secretarial studies and then became certified to teach business.
After graduating from college, she interviewed with several school districts, with the idea of becoming a secretary.
“I thought I could do secretarial work at the schools, but they told me I was overqualified,” she explained. “Then, Ladonia asked me if I would consider teaching math.”
Because she had changed majors several times, Marts had taken a “multitude of math classes.”
She took the job teaching math at Ladonia, but after a couple of years of teaching and taking night classes to get certified, she discovered it wasn’t the right fit.
"I was taking trigonometry two nights a week,” Marts said. “It just didn’t work out, so I decided to see what I could get certified in, and I ended up going back to the business world.”
Her first business classroom in Ladonia didn’t have a computer.
Later, when she took a job teaching business, life science and earth science in Cumby, she only had one computer — and it had a floppy disc.
“I show kids these floppy discs and they can’t believe those were used in computers,” Marts said.
Although math classes were not in her future, Marts did go back to ETSU, earning a masters in education in 1984.
When Marts came to Como-Pickton in 1988 to teach business computer information systems and economics, her classroom only had one computer. Now, there are laptops at every desk.
“We get to do a lot of projects on the computer,” Marts said. “We use desktop publishing, Excel, Power Point and a lot of the Microsoft Office Suite. I want my kids to be ready for college. Hopefully, they will be – if they do what I ask.”
Along with business computer information systems, Marts also teaches a class in economics.
“The students only have to take one BCIS class, but economics is required,” she said. “They have to have that to graduate.”
Students can also earn college credit if “they finish that second [BCIS] class during their junior or senior year,” Marts advised.
When it comes to teaching economics, Marts said she used the financial crisis last year in her classroom to show students how it can all fall apart.
“We looked at what was happening [with the economy] during our daily lessons. There’s supposed to be truth and disclosure,” she said. “Because that didn’t happen, we saw the consequences. Economics is not like math. You don’t have just one answer.”
During her tenure at Como-Pickton, Marts did not limit her talents to computers and economics. She served as sponsor of the yearbook for 17 years, coached junior high academic University Interscholastic League and high school UIL computer applications and journalism events. She was also a cheerleader sponsor and has driven a bus or two through the years.
Marts knows she has a reputation for being tough, but that’s all right with her – and it suits her principal, Penny Armstrong, just fine.
“She’s very strict, but she is very compassionate about the kids and she loves them,” Armstrong said. “She has been a tremendous asset to us for years.”
In the end, Marts believes the rewards are worth it.
“Even though I suffer through all those hours of kids thinking I’m just being mean to them and so hard, there’s a reason,” Marts explained. “I’m trying to make them better students so when they’re in college, they’ll be where they’re supposed to be – ahead of the curve.”
Armstrong appreciates Marts’ efforts in the classroom because her students are “very well prepared by the time they go to college. Once they’ve had her, they do not have to struggle.”
When asked why she’s retiring now, Marts says, “I just decided I’m going to try something new and different. With another job, I could have additional income. I might even qualify for retirement somewhere else if I work another 10 years.”
Armstrong said she encouraged Marts to have a new career even though “it will make me ill to lose her because I don’t think I can find anyone else near what she is. But I said, ‘You’ve put in your time and you need to do some things for you.’ She’s emotional about leaving the kids, but she’s excited about a new life.”
Marts won’t have much down time, however. She and her husband, Gene, have cattle. Gene works as the yard manager for Sulphur Springs Livestock, so raising cows seemed like a natural thing for the couple to do.
“It's a second job for us, you might say,” she said.
The couple has lived in Cumby for three years and own land there, including the homeplace where Marts was raised. Her parents are Harley and Carol Moore.
“When daddy started talking about selling the land, I thought, ‘Nobody else can have that. It has to stay in the family.’ So we bought it,” she said. “Three years ago, we purchased a house just across the road from our working pens.”
When Marts and her husband were working the cows on Easter Sunday, she made a misstep and broke her ankle, forcing her into a bulky boot-like cast for the rest of the school year.
As she prepares to leave the classroom for the final time, Marts reflected on the changes she’s seen during her career.
“Students in kindergarten and elementary schools are getting familiar with computers,” she explained. “They’re not afraid of them. In fact, they’re pretty aggressive when it comes to technology.”
Marts has also seen a decline in overall parental involvement.
“While some parents are very active in their kids’ lives, there seems to be less of it [parental involvement] than in years past,” Marts remarked.
When asked what fulfills her as a teacher, Marts says her greatest reward is “when my kids – and they are my kids; they are part of my family – come and give me a hug and say ‘thank you’ for what they learned in my class. I love it when they say, ‘I took economics in college and those other kids were so far behind. I knew what I needed to know because I was in your class.’”
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