Schools honor six retiring personnel
Teachers and school board members gathered at the Elks Lodge May 22 to honor four retiring teachers, an administrator, and a middle school secretary.
While the retirement banquet punctuates the end of an accumulated century of teaching experience, many of the schools personnel honored, like 30-year veteran teacher Dan Roope, said reality hadn't yet – and wouldn't yet – set in.
"It doesn't seem real right now," he said. "One of the nice things about teaching is that you get to go to some other job or some other activity in the summertime. I'm already in my fly-fishing guide mode. September will be the reality sinking in."
While retirement may be wistful for many of the retirees, Roope said he was looking forward to the additional time.
"Usually in August I have to usually sort of shut things down, and I won't have to do that this year," he said. "Or the idea of going fly fishing in Argentina seems really good, and ordinarily I wouldn't be able to do that."
In 29 years of teaching in Wrangell – Roope spent a single year teaching in Kake waiting for a job in his hometown to open up – technological changes and class sizes have loomed large.
"We're approaching 700 students K through 12," he said. "In terms of sizes of classes, in terms of just the needs of the district, there's less teachers than there used to be."
While other teachers may have faced challenges adapting, Roope said he welcomed the change.
"In terms of teaching, computers were really kind of experimental and avant garde and almost exotic and weird when I first started teaching," he said. "This year my students didn't hand me a single piece of paper. Everything was uploaded to my website. That's very, very different ... and I really kind of like that. It's pretty cool."
While other teachers may be retiring, they will maintain active connections with the school and their former students.
Ray Stokes started teaching briefly at Stikine Middle School in 1987, and concludes his career teaching science at Wrangell High School. Stokes will maintain his position as boys head basketball coach for at least next year's season.
"I just really enjoy the kids, seeing what they did the night before, getting into their lives a little bit, that's the highlight of my day every day," he said.
Beside coaching basketball next season, retirement is wide open, Stokes said.
"I'm just wingin' it," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I know I gotta do something, though."
Relative to when he started, teachers face more challenges on the job, which Stokes said was more political.
"I don't know that the kids are changed as much as the parents," he said. "The kids just kind of go as the parents go. I think everything's more political now. That's the biggest thing. Everything from government changing this to changing that, to just more red tape."
He mentioned the nationwide push for a core curriculum among the examples of how the job has changed.
Despite the challenges, teaching came with its own rewards, Stokes said. He also admitted to being puzzled about how to feel about retirement.
"I'm not sure how I feel, to be honest with you," he said. "I'm excited, but at the same time I really love the kids and getting to work with them, as I do with the faculty. Teaching school, I don't think there's anything more rewarding than helping kids."
"The thing that's always steady is that kids are kids and they always have been and always will be," he added. "If you have good support, you can make a lot of headway."
Not all of those leaving were educators in the strictest sense. Middle School secretary Linda Buness – retiring along with husband and secondary principal Monty Buness and sister-in-law and kindergarten teacher Vickie Buness-Taylor – dodged the title educator during an interview, though she indisputably plays a role in many students' education. But she said she was grateful to be honored.
"I think, along with others that are very talented, it's really special to be honored by your friends for years and people you've worked with every day and they have become your really close friends," she said. "It's just really special."
Teachers now cooperate to a greater degree than they have in the past, Linda Buness said.
"The school has changed a great deal," she said. "I think with all the standards and requirements for teachers that they've had to adhere to, I see that the teachers work more closely together as a team. It's just been amazing. They can zero in on kids that really need help, and they can work collaboratively. I've seen a lot more teamwork."
"Traditionally, I think teachers went in their classrooms and did somewhat of what they just wanted to, or what they thought they should, but now assessments and everything have pulled them more together," Linda Buness added.
Teamwork should, and often does, extend beyond teacher-to-teacher collaborations, Linda Buness said.
"I think one of the most important things that an educator or anybody that works at the school can do is love the people that you work with," she said. "Learn to love 'em, learn to love the students, be sensitive to their needs and their situations. Not everybody comes from the same situation at home, and I think if the staff can do that, I think that you've got a pretty good school. If you can get the parents in there and they're all working together, that makes a dynamite school, and I think the middle school has done that very well."
While teachers for the upper grades focused on technology, younger-grade teachers, like Buness-Taylor and Sue Brown, discussed a more intimate teaching experience.
Like virtually all of the teachers, Brown said it was difficult to encapsulate her 25-year-career with a single story or moment.
"I don't know if there's one story, but the thing that I love the most is: I taught kindergarten, so they come running up to you and say 'Oh, Mrs. Brown' and they give you big hugs," she said. "They just make the whole day worthwhile."
Wrangell's recent move to join other Alaska schools with a full-day kindergarten was among the biggest changes she's seen over the years, Brown said.
At the start of 25 years as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, Buness-Taylor hesitated to join the profession.
"I didn't go into teaching right away because I thought I had to know everything," she said. "I was much more comfortable with the idea of being a facilitator, and I think I've done that."
Over the years, teaching methodology has evolved, Buness-Taylor said.
"When I started, it seemed like we had a very difficult or very programmed academic focus, and we went through some changes, still looking for a high-quality result, but different ways to deliver that," she said. "Now it seems as though we are focused once again on outcomes, and I think we're still struggling to get there."
Teaching is an extremely challenging profession, Buness-Taylor said.
"In 25 years, I think I maybe nailed it three days, and those were not consecutively," she joked. "I don't think the job has ever been easy or is getting easier. I think the challenges for teachers are tremendous."
Retirement will be somewhat liberating.
"Do whatever I want," she said, when asked about her plans for retirement. "Run with scissors."
Her retirement dove-tailed with the end of the school year, making it difficult to distinguish among the emotions for retirement.
"This feels like every May for the past 25 years has," she said. "It's an absolutely crazy exhausting time of year. My report cards are still sitting on the kitchen table, so ask me again in August."
She knows she'll miss at least one part of the job.
"I told my students that I was really gonna miss the hugs I get there every day, and one of them suggested that I come to school, get hugs and then go home and be tired," she said.
Several educators delivered speeches of thanks, and tweaked the teachers on their retirements, like Wrangell Teachers Assocation president Ryan Howe, who listed some events and trends from 1986, the earliest year any of the retiring teachers started in Wrangell Schools.
"Seriously, though, these people have been anchors in our school district for the past 30 years," he said. "Looking back over their careers with Wrangell Public Schools, we all have stories, I'm sure, about special times with them."
The retirement was bittersweet, Howe said.
"I want to say how much we admire your dedication to your colleagues in this school district," he said. "You have been integral parts in our success over the years. It's people like you – who come into work with a smile, make our students happy, inspire them to work harder and dream bigger, and understand that we always have to keep reaching and improving – you are the ones who have made Wrangell Public Schools the success it is today."