For Vicki Harmdierks, principal of Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School, teaching was never a job, it was a calling. But after 35 years in education, Harmdierks plans to retire at the end of the Mitchell school year in May.

"It was hard to tell my staff that I will be leaving, but I have been thinking about this for a long time now," Harmdierks said. "My life has changed a little bit. I have four granddaughters under the age of three and one grandson in fourth grade."

Harmdierks said another reason for leaving is that the school and its kids are very important to her and demand 100 percent of her attention.

"It's such a big job and you just have to give it the time and I am at the age where my grandbabies are pulling on my heart strings. I love my job, it's not that," Harmdierks said. "I'm walking away from a great school and a great career."

In her current position, she is known as someone not content in accepting rules of thumb or bland ambiguous research. Joe Childs, principal at Mitchell High School, began working with her in 2007, when he was the principal at Mitchell Middle School.

"She is a principal willing to find the facts that later drive and support her decisions," Childs said. "She is also the cheerleader, the planner, the mentor and the organizer and able to create an environment of mutual respect."

Childs said it is not by accident that Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary has been recognized as a distinguished school for several consecutive years.

"It is due to Harmdierks' tireless efforts to maintain programs like after school tutoring, in an era of budget cuts and little assistance of grants," Childs said.

Harmdierks was also the recipient of the Terrel H. Bell Award in 2013, a national honor which recognizes outstanding school leaders and the vital role they play in leading students and schools to excellence, frequently under challenging circumstances. She was one of only seven selections in 2013.

"Vicki has done a great job for us," Superintendent Joe Graves said. "What really makes that true, is that she keeps the interest of the students paramount in all of the decisions she makes."

Harmdierks has touched countless hearts and generations of students during her career as an educator with one goal in mind: empowering children by building trust and creating lifelong relationships.

"I wanted all of my students to think that they are my favorite," Harmdierks said. "It's all about relationships. I have to get to know all those kids and they have to know that I care about them. They are my kids; I have thousands of them."

Harmdierks graduated Huron College at the age of 21 with an undergraduate degree in education and started teaching art and keyboarding at Wessington Springs Middle School in 1983. Later, the family moved to Armour where she taught for 13 years and went on to be the first volleyball coach in the school district.

"That was when volleyball just started in South Dakota," Harmdierks said. "I went to college to play basketball, but anybody on the basketball team that would play volleyball got a $500 scholarship."

After receiving her master's and specialist degree in education and administration at the University of South Dakota, Harmdierks began working as the principal of Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary 12 years ago. Asked about her favorite experience as a principal, Harmdierks recalls a little girl that came to her as a fourth grader.

"I got a call, that there was a student that is a foster child. She was in a behavioral school and I thought, 'Oh great, I don't need another behavior kid, how am I going to do this'," Harmdierks said. "She instantly got a part of my heart and now, the little girl is a freshman in high school and I am her mentor and her person for life."

Harmdierks looks forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and family, but will not rule out substituting or teaching online classes in the future.

"Of course I want to continue to learn. To be able to be a leader, I have to show that I'm continuing to learn things, especially with technology," Harmdierks said. "I will never stop learning."