Kara Gower remembers always loving to look after kids, even when she was just a kid herself.
For her, it felt like a no-brainer to head into teaching when she first enrolled in classes at the University of Georgia. She immediately applied to the school’s competitive early childhood education program and hoped for the best.
But just weeks later, Gower received a notification saying she didn’t make it into the program.
At the time, she knew she couldn’t let the news stop her from eventually pursuing education.
“The backup plan was I knew you could get a master’s in the Art of Teaching and then go and teach after you get a degree in child development,” Gower said.
School: Sawnee Elementary
Years teaching: 3
Subject: Fourth grade special education
She followed through with just that. She began in the child development program at UGA before earning an internship her senior year at Camp Twin Lakes, a nonprofit and camp for kids with special needs, chronic illness and other challenges.
Gower never expected that she would fall in love with the summer camp in Winder.
What started as an internship turned into a year-long fellowship and then a full-time job, and she spent the next six to seven years there, earning her spot as a camp director before eventually following through with her plan and going back to school for her master’s.
Now, Gower is beginning her fourth year as a fourth-grade special education teacher at Sawnee Elementary School, and she attributes much of her success in the classroom to her experience teaching and learning from kids at Camp Twin Lakes.
Her experience and attention to kids’ academic and emotional needs are just some of the many reasons the community voted Gower as the Forsyth County News’ Teacher of the Month for August.
The FCN spoke with Gower about the work she did with Camp Twin Lakes, her transition from summer camp to classroom and how she started teaching in special education.
What was that transition like going from camp to the classroom?
“Honestly, I wrestled with it for a long time before I made the jump because it was a tough job to leave. I loved it.”
“I actually started my master’s while I was still working at camp, thinking I would stop when I started student teaching, but getting a master’s and having a full-time job is harder than you would expect. So I wound up resigning shortly after and just transitioned and was a full-time student for about a year and a half.”
How have you been liking working at Sawnee?
“I absolutely love it. We are a very big school — we have about 1,500 students — but I have grown to know and love the kids, the families, the staff here. We have a wonderful admin that is so supportive. I was lucky enough to have one mentor me the last three years and really teach me some things and give me some great opportunities, which has been really cool.”
“But the family and community feel of Sawnee has been what has kept me here.”
Leaving Camp Twin Lakes, was your goal to start teaching special education?
“No, I just knew that I loved working with different populations. I love the experience of getting to meet different types of kids.”
“When I first started working at Twin Lakes, it was kind of an experience thing, but I fell in love with it, and that’s what kept me there. Because I worked with so many different kids with so many different challenges and backgrounds — anything from kids with Tourette syndrome to kids who have a parent who is incarcerated to kids with cancer and then sometimes also adults with disabilities.”
“Just being able to work with so many different types of kids and families and people and watch them overcome challenges and turn them into something they’ve built friendships and relationships out of and meet other people who were like them. That’s what kept me in it.”
“And so when I started thinking about what else I could do after camp, the teaching piece came from that. I met a lot of kids who really just needed a loving, caring adult that was in their corner, and I loved pushing kids to meet goals and overcome challenges.”
What do you love about teaching special education at Sawnee now?
“One of the big things that I believe as a teacher is there are endless possibilities when you have the tools that you need, and I feel like every teacher here at Sawnee does a good job.”
“Something that I started to do is supply the tools for every kid’s toolbox, and sometimes those tools may be academic, but sometimes they may not be academic.”
“I spend a lot of time with little kids who feel big emotions and have trouble with those big emotions, and so giving them tools to calm themselves and be able to come back into the classroom or just take a minute and breathe before taking that math test.”
Do you live in Forsyth County?
“I went to South Forsyth High School, and my parents live in the south end of the county. I was moving back here to get closer to them. We live right over the county line in Cherokee County.”
“I moved to Forsyth County right before I started my freshman year of high school. I grew up in Virginia, and then that summer between eighth grade and my freshman year, I’ll never forgive my parents for it, we moved to Georgia and I started at South Forsyth.”
“My dad worked for Coke, so we knew we would end up near Atlanta at some point.”
What are some things you like to do outside of the classroom?
“I enjoy spending time with family, and I have a new little nephew whose one. He is so, so cute. I like FaceTiming with him. He’s gotten really good at holding the phone for a one-year-old. You go on a wild ride though.”
“Pre-pandemic, I was still volunteering at Camp Twin Lakes. I did that a lot over the summer.”