A special principal is leaving a special school filled with special kids after a 34-year career in education. Diana Gossett hasn’t quite left the building yet, but she’s close, retiring from Knox County Schools after 11 years as the leader of Ridgedale School. Her official retirement date is June 28.
Ridgedale is a school with two very distinct and challenging groups of students. The first floor houses alternative middle-school students, grades six through eight. The second floor is filled with special-education students with a variety of intellectual and development disabilities, grades K-12. “Relationships are the most important thing we do,” she says.
Gossett, 60, is in the process of cleaning out her office so assistant principal Kristi Phillips can step in and keep this well-oiled machine running efficiently. As school winds down for the staff, Gossett is working with her successor on new teacher hires and strategy for the transition.
In addition to the notes, letters, hugs and sweet tears of this process, the Rotary Club of Farragut on Wednesday honored Gossett with its highest honor, presenting her with a Paul Harris Recognition, an honor named after the founder of Rotary in 1905. It was presented by club President Keith Bryson and Service Project Co-Chairs Teri Jo Fox and Val Privett. The award was presented for her long years of community service and her professional commitment to education.
Four years ago after a World Rotary Day workday project at the school, Farragut Rotary, led by then-President Chris Camp, decided to adopt Ridgedale as the club’s Partner in Education school. And it has been a partnership of love and respect for what Gossett and her staff do and for what this school means to its students and their families.
“This is totally unexpected, and I appreciate it so much,” Gusset said at the presentation. “I am humbled. It’s all about the kids and the teaching. I am very honored, and your club is special to me and our school.”
Ridgedale is not your typical neighborhood school. Its students come from all over Knox County. It has no PTA. Ridgedale provides educational services for students who have received long-term suspensions and students with special needs who require a highly structured, behaviorally focused program. “One would think these two programs don’t really go together; however, in our case, it makes for an extremely special educational environment,” Gossett says. The school population usually runs around 80 students.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, she worked for the Sertoma Center for three years and began her educational career in 1985 with what was then Knoxville City Schools, two years before the city and Knox County Schools merged.
She began her career at the Knoxville Adaptive Education Center, teaching two years there, then two years at Fulton High School. She then spent five years as a special-education consultant and then five as a specialist. Then she was promoted to the job as K-12 Special Education supervisor for nine years. And her past 11 years have been at Ridgedale.
She was reared in Etowah in McMinn County. She graduated from McMinn Central High in 1977. Her special-education career may have begun when she was a 14-year-old eighth-grader. That’s when she wrote an essay about what she wanted to be doing in the next 10 to 20 years of her life. She wrote about being a Special Education teacher. “I had a younger cousin with special needs and I always knew I wanted to teach kids with special needs,” she says. And she did.
Asked about the biggest change she’s witnessed in education, she says: “It’s the intensity of the social-media use and the emotional needs of our students. Kids have so many more emotional issues these days that lead to difficulties in school. Our biggest job is communicating with them across the board, and with their families.”
The career is almost over, but she’s not fading into the background. She plans to be a substitute teacher. “Finding subs in special education and the alternative classes is hard to do, and I live maybe five minutes from the school, so I’m looking forward to going back and subbing when they need me,” she says.
Right now, her bucket list is short. She has family in Denmark and plans to visit them. She wants to take a European river cruise and visit Greece. She also will spend more time in the mountains. “I had a cabin outside of Gatlinburg that we lost in the fires,” she says. “But I bought a house in the arts and crafts community in Gatlinburg, and I’ll spend time there.”
And what will she miss the most? “Just being part of something bigger than I am. The relationships, the kids. Some of them have left me notes about retiring and yes, I’ve cried reading them. It’s fun tearing up and reading them all. This school is such a very special place. Relationships are the most important thing we do,” she says. “This school is the best-kept secret in Knox County.”
One note from a parent meant the world to her. It simply said: “You’ve made a difference in my family’s life.”
She always kept a poster picture of Pat Summitt on her office wall. The Lady Vols are in her retirement plans, too. “I am a Lady Vol forever for life,” she says, adding the “forever” for emphasis. “I won’t miss any games.”
At the final meeting with faculty and staff on May 24, she left them with this:
“Today is such a special day. Not my last day of work, but my last faculty meeting. I have had some wonderful opportunities in my career and I am grateful for being able to work with so many great educators and extremely exceptional students … I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to work with such a dedicated group of educators – teachers, educational assistants and support staff who truly believe all means all! … Today, I honor you, the staff, who chose to educate those students who don’t ‘fit’ anywhere else. You are the life jackets for your students! Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this special school.”
If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email or call me at (865) 659-3562. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. Join us as a guest and see how you like Rotary!