ANTIOCH -- As far as anyone knows, it doesn't appear that Debbie Chin knows how to pour concrete. Or that she's particularly skilled with a hammer, nails or drill.

But, still, it's obvious to thousands of parents: She is a master of building a foundation.

In her 37 years of teaching -- which will come to a close next month -- Chin has spent the last three decades at Antioch's Belshaw Elementary. She taught first grade for 20 years, and for the last 10 years has been busy molding the sweet little minds of kindergartners.

Engaged, focused and calm, Chin takes to her charges with a deep sense of responsibility and respect.

Instead of scolding a child for being out of hand or disrespectful, she will tell them "that makes me sad," and explains in an almost hypnotic tone the right thing to do.

As expected, Chin has countless memories from her decades as an educator, and recalls one particular stand out moment.

"It was the mid-'90s and two young men walk through the door to my classroom," she said. "One has to duck to come in, and I can see by the smirks on their faces that I should know them. It took me a second but then I realize that, of course, they were former students whom I had as first-graders.

"And, yes, I did remember their names."

Some of her best times on the Antioch campus were those spent with her longtime teaching partner, Kathy Farrell, who retired in 2011.

"Sharing a kindergarten room, sharing lesson planning and prep duties, sharing students and sharing many a laugh. ... We always said that teaching in a kindergarten class was like living in a situation comedy show."

Chin said picking her favorite aspect of teaching is tough but she thinks "it's seeing the amount of growth (both academic and social) a student makes in a school year.

"Sometimes it's amazing how fast some students acquire new skills -- and you see them applying them in just a few weeks."

Although she wears the teaching hat, along the way she has also learned many lessons, including "patience, humility, humor, and always stop to ask or at least wonder 'why?' My young students never cease to surprise me with their own logic and reasoning."

Not surprisingly, Chin has made fans in her time at Belshaw, including Principal Laura Casdia.

"She has been such a positive teacher here. She always has the best interests of the students and their families at heart. She has gained the respect of all staff members, and former students stop by to visit with her.

"She will be remembered for years ahead. I will truly miss her," Casdia said.

Bill Bolio, former Belshaw principal, said "Debbie has always represented the type of teacher every principal wants to have. She exemplifies the character, talent and drive that truly qualify her as a gifted teacher. One of her strongest assets is her ability to maintain strong relationships with her colleagues, her keen ability to work with everyone and her wonderful sense of humor. As a kindergarten teacher, you need to be able to laugh and laugh often."

And, then there are the parents, who feel a sense of place in Room 1.

"I love (her) ... (she's) organized, engaging, caring, creative," said Lia Valenzuela. "And, on a personal level, I'm so grateful for her being so accommodating with (my son) Enzo and his allergies."

Why retire this year? Chin's son is coming home from Afghanistan and with aging family nearby, she felt the pull to be home.

Away from her classroom, she will also have the opportunity to travel with her husband, Marty Rokeach, and do "the things I can't seem to find the time to do" including reading, lunch with friends, organizing her home and gardening."

Contact Trine Gallegos at trineg@att.net.

In our "Neighbors" series, we give you a personal look at the people who are serving your community. If you would like to nominate someone for this column, contact Judy Prieve at 925-779-7178 or e-mail jprieve@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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