When Debbie Fritz-Bradeen announced she's retiring, after 20 years in the Westport school system -- and 38½ years in education, a career she "absolutely loves" -- the reactions were, well, educational.

Colleagues at Saugatuck Elementary School, where she is assistant principal, praised her loving spirit, great wisdom and easygoing manner. Parents thanked her for all the support she's provided over the years.

The kids, meanwhile, had their own ideas. "So that means you'll be coming back?" one confused student asked. "Are you going to heaven?" another wondered.

Ah, the joys of working with children.

Fritz-Bradeen grew up in East Hartford. She went to nursing school but dropped out after just 2½ days. She enrolled in Southern Connecticut State's special education program -- one of the first in the country. A relative had Down syndrome, and Debbie had volunteered often with Special Olympics.

The 1970s were "a wonderful time to be in special education," she says. The field was young, and growing; the emphasis was on individualized programs and personalized attention. (Prior to that time, she notes, special education students were often relegated to a room in the basement, where a "bleeding heart liberal teacher" volunteered to work with them. The field has come a long way in 40 years.)

Her first job was in New Haven. She and three other teachers worked with eight emotionally disturbed middle-schoolers. "We loved and embraced our job," she says. She earned $8,800 a year -- and poured one-third of it back into her classroom. She calls it "truly the richest time of my life."

She became an elementary school principal in Hampton, a tiny berg in eastern Connecticut. It was rural and diverse: part middle class, part University of Connecticut folks, part long-time farming families. Budgets were small, but hearts were big. She stayed there 10 years.

After marrying (and inheriting two pre-teenagers), she moved to Westport. She describes her career as an assistant principal -- first at Kings Highway, later at Saugatuck -- and her life here as "an amazing journey. This is a very caring community, where education is a priority. Westport hires teachers who are open to new ideas. They're reflective and collaborative." Her job is to "help create a culture that gives them a soft place to land, while they inevitably make mistakes and learn."

She is proud to have hired "incredible teachers" -- and to have learned from them. She has learned too from principals like Angie Wormser, Bob Buckley, Barbara Beaman and Julie Droller.

For the past 20 years, Fritz-Bradeen has had "the opportunity to witness children in their worlds. I've viewed the world through their lenses. And I've been around educators who believe in that process."

The important work of an elementary school staff came into sharp focus on Sept. 11, 2001. Administrators and teachers worked feverishly to reassure parents, while shielding students from the knowledge of what was happening. Fritz-Bradeen recalls that day as "a moment when we gave our children a few more hours of innocence, under a surreal blue sky."

When they put their students on the bus at the end of the day, every adult knew their world could change dramatically by the time they returned. Then the staff gathered, processed their own feelings, and prepared for the next day. "We knew we'd be ready, no matter what," she says.

Most days are far less dramatic, but always eventful. Fritz-Bradeen leaves her office frequently. Walking into a classroom, she says, "I'm never disappointed. It's the most uplifting place to spend a day."

But after nearly four decades in education, she is now retiring. Making that decision, she said in a letter to parents, was not easy. Her note echoed the theme she returns to constantly: the importance of an elementary school as a community.

"I have so much gratitude for the opportunities to work closely with so many of you over the years," she wrote. "Westport has afforded me the opportunity to live a wonderful professional life, within a caring community of families and children. I have had the gift of being witness to the dedication of the staff and administrators in our school community, and your endless commitment as parents to support our work."

Fritz-Bradeen has many passions, including service dogs. She'll stay in town -- where she sees her "kids" everywhere, and like every elementary school educator, she will revel in watching them grow up.

She will miss the day-to-day experiences -- the "crises and celebrations" -- but looks forward to having time to get more involved in Westport. "There are so many good organizations here, like the library," she says.

"Public education for me will be a hard act to follow. But I'm not retiring. I'm redefining."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.