Next fall, Topeka Unified School District 501 will be adding a first-year teacher with a newly minted teaching certificate. But this one will come with about 20 years of teaching experience and a wealth of knowledge in just about every subject at every grade level.


Kim Fraenza may be a new classroom teacher, but she home-schooled her four children. And at 50 years old, she is raring to go, ready to pass along knowledge and wisdom to other students.


Fraenza endured college in her 40s, all the while keeping a family intact, culminating with a pandemic that turned her student-teaching experience into a virtual teaching experiment.


When it was over, though she was denied the chance to walk across the stage to accept her diploma, her attitude was spelled out on the top of a graduation cap she donned with pride: “Relentlessly joyful.”


Fraenza home-schooled her four children through the younger grades before each attended Topeka High School. When her last child entered the public school, she decided to study education at Washburn University so she could become a classroom teacher.


“I always loved learning and did well in school — I was a 501 student the whole way through,” Fraenza said. “I started at Washburn after high school, but I was working at the time, and then got married and started having kids.”


Fraenza said she had several friends who were home-schooling their children at the time, so she and her husband, Paul, decided to give it a try. About two decades later, Fraenza had developed the confidence to believe she could be a good classroom teacher, something she lacked when she started college in her teens.


“I developed such a passion for education,” Fraenza said. “From teaching my own kids, and working with the kids at my church, I said to myself, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do! I can do this!’


“And I didn’t want to stop as all my kids started going to public school. I said, ‘I just want to keep this up. I want to keep going.’ It’s just too much fun. I could see myself doing it, and I just decided to go back to school and get my degree.”


So she want back to school in her mid-40s, taking education classes with students the same age as her oldest children.


“I was more prepared than the average education major,” Fraenza said. “I had gone through kindergarten four times, first grade four times ...”


She said her husband and children were supportive of her decision to go back to college. She jumped in with a full class load and kept up the schedule of a traditional student, finishing her degree in four years.


“They were so excited. They were so proud of me,” Fraenza said. “My husband was like, ‘You can do it, honey! I believe in you!’ My kids all thought it was great, and they thought I would be a good role model.”


Fraenza said not everyone should go to college right after high school, and she demonstrated that you can attend college at any age.


“I felt like I was showing that education isn’t linear. You don't have to follow a formula,” said Fraenza. “All of the time teaching my children was great, but I feel like it was part of a greater plan for my life. Now I want to get out there. I’ve got about 20 years of teaching left. I just want to do all the good that I can in that classroom. I want to help those kids.”


Fraenza said she would recommend that home-school parents consider becoming classroom teachers after they finish teaching their own children.


“It’s great. It just makes sense,” Fraenza said “You have all this knowledge compiled and catalogued. Why not share it? I highly recommend to any home-school parent, keep going.”


Fraenza’s semester of student teaching at Northern Hills Elementary School in Seaman USD 345 took an unexpected turn in March. Suddenly she found herself teaching the school’s fifth graders virtually.


“It was really tough, but because of my past experience with home schooling and virtual learning, I think I was somewhat comfortable going into it,” said Fraenza. “We had to be flexible and innovative working from home and using new technology to teach. I think it was good for us, even though disappointing that we didn’t get the full student-teaching experience. I think it made us more well-rounded, and taught us to be more prepared.


“It forced us to be a little bit more of a holistic teacher. You had to think more about what the kids were going through at home.”


Fraenza said she was put in charge of teaching writing to the fifth graders. She said the students wrote a lot about their experiences during the pandemic, expressing the stress they were enduring.


She said the pandemic has been just one more challenge to live up to her motto: “Relentlessly joyful.”


“You have to keep working on that joy,” Fraenza said. “It’s not easy to keep that up. That’s what I want to bring into my classroom. School is not some easy thing. But it’s very rewarding if you stick with it and bring that joy.”