Mitchell schools have high number of 4-decade teachers
Call them experienced, seasoned or old-school. Just don’t call them old.
This school year, there are seven teachers in the Mitchell School District who’ve been in education for 40 or more years. That means about 3.5 percent of the 194 full-time teachers in the district have roamed school hallways for four decades.
“What a commitment they’ve made to kids,” said Mitchell Middle School Principal Brad Berens. “When you have people with that kind of experience, they’re able to forecast student struggles in learning. They can draw on years’ worth of methods and techniques that are successful for their students.”
No public school district in the state with a K-12 enrollment of 2,000 or more has a higher percentage of full-time teachers with 40 or more years of experience. None of the eight other Eastern South Dakota Conference schools besides Mitchell has more than two 40-year teachers.
Among even bigger schools, the Rapid City School District does not have any 40-year teachers, and the Sioux Falls School District — comprised of 1,684 full-time teachers, or about eight times more than Mitchell — has only 12, or less than 1 percent of its staff.
Mitchell Middle School and Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary each have three teachers who’ve been molding young minds for 40 or more years, while L.B. Williams Elementary has one.
Larry Larson stands atop the Mitchell district in teaching experience. The eighth-grade U.S. history teacher started his career at the middle school and has taught for 42 years, all in Mitchell.
Seventh-grade English and social studies teacher Kathy Kramer is at 41 years, and there are five who went over the educational 40-year hill this school year. They are Cindy Auch, middle school; Teresa (Teri) Determan, GBR; Kathy Ewing, GBR; Connie Parrish, GBR; and Ione Klinger; LBW.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that we have longevity in our teachers,” Mitchell Board of Education President Theresa Kriese said. “It shows the quality we have here at the Mitchell School District. Statistics show that long-term teachers tend to give a quality education. That’s a good reflection of our district.”
The seven teachers have watched trends rise, fall and then become stylish again years later. In some cases, they’ve taught the kids of the kids they’ve already taught.
And they all agree the biggest change in education they’ve seen is the technology boom. Early in their teaching careers, computers were just sneaking into classrooms. Today, many students have individual access to laptop computers and iPads.
“I think sometimes students have to be able to read and write and they’re learning to do things on the iPads sooner than they can read and write,” Larson said. “I have mixed feelings with that.”
According to the state Department of Education, the average teaching experience in South Dakota last year was 15 years. Teachers at the Mitchell School District averaged 16.9 years of experience a year ago and are at 17.8 years of experience this year. That ranks second ESD school districts, behind only Yankton’s average teaching experience of 18.5 years.
For Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves, the experienced staff is undoubtedly “a real positive.”
“If you look at the research it really lends credence to the idea that very experienced teachers will tend to get better achievement out of students,” Graves said. “The reason is they have such a large bag of tricks. They’ve seen every issue before and they know what’s most likely to solve it.”
Consistency is the best way to describe Larson, 63.
The Forestburg native and University of South Dakota graduate took a job with the Mitchell School District in 1972 teaching social studies. Although he’s taught other subjects, he still holds the social studies job he started with.
Larson became interested in an education career when he was in high school, partially because of a stint as an assistant elementary basketball coach.
“In high school, I had a couple different teachers that I became very interested in the subject areas they were teaching and the way they presented it,” Larson said. “In high school, I also did some assistant coaching for some fourth- and fifth-graders in basketball. I enjoyed the teaching aspect of it.”
When Larson started with the Mitchell School District, he also took the eighth-grade boys’ basketball head coaching job in his first year. Like his teaching position, Larson hasn’t changed on the basketball court, either. He still roams the side of the court each basketball season with the eighth-grade boys.
“I had opportunities to move up at different times throughout the program, but it just worked out so well with teaching and being in the same building with the same kids,” said Larson, who also coached varsity girls’ basketball for eight years in the 1980s when the girls’ season was separate from the boys. “I just enjoy working with that age group, so I wanted to stay here.”
Larson and his wife, Nita (Short) have two children, Tate and Brooke. Larson hasn’t planned retirement, he said, because “in life, you can only take one day at a time.”
“You look at that year you’re teaching in, and there will come a time when I say I don’t enjoy it as much as I do now, and that’s when I’ll think about it,” he said. “But right now, I don’t know when that time will be.”
Kramer, a Grenville native, wasn’t interested in a teaching career early on.
“I’m from a farming community,” she said. “I was thinking about becoming an airline stewardess, being adventurous and getting away from the small towns and flying the skies.”
The seventh-grade social studies and English teacher is in her 41st year of education. She credits her high school algebra teacher with getting her interested in education.
Kramer said her algebra teacher saw what she could become.
“He knew I had some of those basics: strong work ethic, I could get along with people and could learn things quickly, and I was reflective about learning and could evaluate myself,” she said.
The graduate of Aberdeen’s Northern State took her first job out of college in Leola.
She also taught in Groton and Aberdeen before moving to Mitchell in 1984 when she started with Longfellow. In 2001, she switched to the middle school, where she stayed until retiring in May.
About six weeks into the current school year, a teacher left the middle school to take another career path, and Kramer found herself back in the classroom.
Kramer said what’s changed about education is students expect teachers to present lessons differently than in the past. In today’s age of learning about the world by the click of a button, Kramer said students are introduced to technology earlier than ever.
“They’re still students and they all have different personalities,” she said. “But the information age is bombarding them with so much. How they filter it sometimes needs more direction.”
Kramer and her husband, Joseph, have three children, Nikkol, Shannon and Ryan.
She knows at some point she’ll retire from teaching, but she “won’t go through the retirement parties again,” she said.
“I’m sure I’ll have to hang it up someday, but right now I’m very happy with my decision to come back. The kids are awesome. It’s all systems go right now.”
Auch calls herself old-school.
The three sets of encyclopedias and collection of dictionaries in her classroom back that claim.
Auch, a Mitchell native and Dakota Wesleyan University graduate, is in her 40th year of teaching. She has four science classes and one language arts class at the middle school.
“When I’ve talked to other people and tell them I make kids use encyclopedias, I get a lot of comments back like, ‘Oh, really? You still have those in your classroom?’ ” she said. “On the other hand, they say that it’s good and know they’re still learning and doing the research without using computers all the time.”
Auch likes where technology has taken education, but she knows there will be times when her students won’t be able to rely on computers. Spelling lessons are regular in her classroom, and students have to use a dictionary if they’re writing and don’t know how to spell a word.
“A lot of them say they go home and type it and it will automatically correct it,” she said. “Well, that’s good, but you’re going to have to be able to do it manually, too.”
Auch has taught in Mitchell her entire career. Her first teaching job was kindergarten through sixth-grade physical education from January to June 1974. She then taught at Holy Family grade school until 1985.
She returned to Wesleyan so she could start teaching in the classroom and did that while teaching physical education at now-closed Whittier Elementary in 1985-86. She made a stop at Longfellow teaching fourth grade from 1986 to 2000 and then moved to the middle school.
Auch and her husband, Don, have two sons, Kyal and Travis.
“It’s going to come soon, hopefully within the next couple of years,” she said of retirement. “I’m going to keep my teaching degree up so I can come back and sub. I’m sure I’ll miss the kids.”
Determan was the first elementary counselor in the Mitchell School District.
She found the right career, she said, after wanting to become a teacher as early as her elementary years. Now based at Gertie Belle Rogers and in her 40th year of teaching, Determan started on her master’s degree in the summer of 1983.
“At the end of the summer at that time it was Dr. Lynn Davidson who was with the school district as a curriculum director,” she said, “and he approached me and asked me if I would be willing to start a counseling program at the elementary level.
“I had one summer of graduate classes at that point, and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything. I took training while being a counselor and that was probably the best educational experience a person could have. I was learning on the job while experiencing it.”
Prior to becoming a counselor, Determan, a Northville native and graduate of Northern State, taught in the classroom at Mitchell’s Whittier Elementary from 1975 to 1980 and at Longfellow from 1980 to 1983.
Today, her job duties include still teaching a weekly session in every classroom at GBR. The lessons include self-esteem and social skills development, emotional understand and regulation, conflict management, test-taking and bullying prevention, among other things.
“Teaching is my whole life,” she said. “I really haven’t found something that captures me like teaching does or working with kids.”
Today there are full-time counselors at L.B. Williams, Gertie Belle Rogers and a half-time position at Longfellow.
Determan and her husband, Virgil, have four sons: Eric, Scott, Mark and Kelly.
“You’ll know when you’re ready,” she said of retirement. “If there comes a point where I can’t deal with my schedule, deal with kids and deal with what I’m expected to do, I might have to retire then. But as long as I can do my job, I’m going to do it.
“I’m afraid if I retire just because I’m old enough to retire, I’m going to be very unhappy.”
Ewing admits she picked the wrong major in college.
Now an elementary music teacher at Gertie Belle Rogers, Ewing started out studying nursing at South Dakota State University.
“I hated the hours,” she said. “I tried to major in nursing and minor in music. That didn’t work, so I had to pick.”
The Tyndall native eventually transferred to the University of South Dakota-Springfield, which is now closed and has been converted to a state prison.
She started her teaching career in the Tripp-Delmont School District, taught at Canton, Mitchell Catholic schools and has now been with the Mitchell School District since 1995. She’s in her 40th year of teaching.
“When I first taught, the focus of education was teaching the children, but we didn’t have all of the different subjects and opportunities we do now,” she said. “Everybody participated in everything. It just seems like it was a lot simpler then. We had a lot more time to focus on the kids and we didn’t have to worry about all the rules and regulations we do now.”
Technology has made teaching music easier, she said.
“With iPods and iPads, you can download anything you need for class,” she said. “You can record instantly. Wow, just wow.”
Ewing has three sons: Heath, Chad and Drew. She plans to teach until she’s 65.
“I still love what I do, and when you love something you try to do the best you can at it,” she said.
Parrish, a Mitchell native and Dakota Wesleyan University graduate, retired for one year in 2006.
“It was a sad year,” she said. “I missed the kids so much.”
By a swing of luck, her third-grade teaching position at Gertie Belle Rogers opened again after the person who took her job left the school. She’s now in her 40th year of teaching.
“I asked if I could come back and was able to,” she said.
Parrish has stuck around her hometown pretty much her entire life. She’s had teaching stints at Holy Family Catholic School, Whittier, Longfellow and Litchfield, before going to GBR in 1994.
She said being a teacher was always her plan.
Parrish is quick to respond to her favorite memory from teaching.
“One of the most special things that happened to me is one year I had a little boy in my class from an abusive home,” she said. “He was put in foster care and he kept running away from all the foster homes. He told the social worker that the only place he wanted to stay was with me and my husband, and we were licensed foster parents at the time. For the time he was in Mitchell, he lived with us. It really touched my heart that he felt safe with us.”
Parrish and her husband, Michael, have two biological children: Joshua and Jonathan; and an unofficially adopted daughter, Anna.
“Some days I feel I’m ready to retire and other days I feel like I never want to quit,” she said. “It’s really a difficult position. I like it so much, but I am getting old.”
Klinger is in her 40th year of teaching, 30th year with the Mitchell School District and 20th year with L.B. Williams.
A native of Farmer and an Augustana College graduate, Klinger teaches special education, Title I and reading recovery. She began her teaching career in 1974 with the Hanson School District and also had stops at Mitchell’s Whittier and Eugene Field schools.
“There is nothing like watching a child figure out how to read or watching a child figure out a math concept,” she said.
For her, hitting her 40th year of teaching is special, but she added there’s always more to learn in the profession.
Klinger and her husband, James, have two children, Sarah and Aaron. She doesn’t have any official plans for retirement yet.
“Right now, I would say I’m taking it year by year, knowing that it’s always an option,” she said. “I look forward to that time, but I know that my life is still going to be involved with other people and serving others.”