By Julie Ann Madden
The Akron-Westfield High School and school library will be a little different come fall.
Two longtime English/Spanish high school teachers and a Special Education teacher/school librarian have selected Early Retirement benefits.
Sandra Miller Hall, Mary Jane Tapper and Pam Von Hagel are entering their first chapter of not being an Akron-Westfield teacher after more than three decades of instructing and guiding students.
Sandra Miller Hall
Sandra Miller Hall is the last Westfield Community School teacher, who came from Westfield when the Akron and Westfield school districts consolidated in 1981.
Her teaching career began in 1972 as a Title I reading teacher for Westfield students. After three years, she became a Special Education teacher and has spent most of her career helping elementary students who have learning disabilities.
After teaching nine years at Westfield, Hall continued teaching elementary Special Education students until five years ago when she was assigned to be the Grades K-12 librarian. This past year, she has had two positions: one-third time librarian and two-thirds time Middle School Special Education instructor.
“I’ve taught 41 years,” said Hall, adding the elementary Special Education program was just beginning in Iowa education back then.
She remembers her job interview with the newly-hired Westfield Superintendent Mr. L.F. Robinson.
“As I look back, I don’t think he’d interviewed many people,” she laughed, “and I’d never really been interviewed before.”
“I felt very fortunate to be hired because there weren’t many jobs available,” said Hall. “I was really excited. It was close to home.”
The Westfield School Board had to hold a special meeting to decide if they could hire her full-time. They only had $6,600 in their Title I salary budget but full-time base pay was $6,800. The board had to decide if they could take $200 out of the General Fund to offer her full-time.
“Those numbers seem crazy now,” said Hall.
With teaching Special Education students, every day is different, she said. “You never know what weird things will happen.”
One of her memories of teaching at Westfield is taking the children to the zoo in Sioux Falls, S.D.
One of the students threw a rock, which hit a duck in the head, knocking it unconscious.
“It was the craziest thing,” said Hall. “It couldn’t have happened in a million years…We were asked not to come back.”
Another field trip was taking students to Authors’ Day in Sioux City.
“Over the years, there have been a variety of different things I’ve enjoyed with the students,” said Hall.
So much has changed during her teaching career — the biggest, of course, is the invention of computers.
One of her current duties as librarian is to plug the computers in each night so the batteries won’t be dead in the morning when students check them out.
In addition to checking out library books, Hall checks computers in and out now.
What hasn’t changed is teaching students to read.
“Reading in general is difficult to teach,” said Hall, explaining some students learn by hearing it while others are sight learners. “It’s very tough to teach but it’s very important that they get it a good basic start in Kindergarten and First Grade.”
“It’s especially hard for kids who have learning problems but even for average kids, it’s hard to learn,” she said.
“I’ll miss the kids,” said Hall, noting she is now teaching some of her original students’ children. “I’ll miss the teachers. I’ve known these people a long time. You get to know their families, things about them. They are kind of like your extended family.”
“It felt like time to retire,” said Hall as she reflected with The Akron Hometowner about her final days at Akron-Westfield.
“It’s tough doing two jobs,” said Hall, explaining she is always running back and forth between her Special Education classroom and the school library. “It’s not a good situation.”
Scheduling library coverage is a problem, she said, explaining she also covers three grades’ of Special Education mathematics, reading and language. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it happened.”
Hall notes she changed classroom areas almost every year she’s taught — many of those times was from some small nook-and cranny to another.
Now, Hall only has one move left, and it’s at the top of her “Retirement To Do” list. She and her husband are building a new home on their farm.
Once their move is completed, she plans to continue her sewing projects, which include making costumes for the school’s and Akron Opera House plays and Dance Depot ballet classes. Currently, she was sewing Girl Scouts’ badges on sashes.
“I also read a lot,” said Hall, noting her favorite book in the school library is “Between A Rock And A Hard Place” by Aron Ralston. “I like biographies — real stuff — things that really happened to people.”
“I don’t lead a very exciting life,” said Hall. “I don’t plan to parachute out of a plane or anything wild like that in retirement. I’m very conservative…considered very boring.”
Mary Jane Tapper
Mary Jane Tapper has taught English and Spanish classes at Akron-Westfield since August 1998.
She declined the opportunity to visit with The Akron Hometowner, preferring to walk out of her classroom quietly at the end of this school year.
Pam Von Hagel
“I can read. I can go for a walk. I can play the piano whenever I want,” said High School English/Spanish teacher Pam Von Hagel about her upcoming retirement. “I’ll crochet.”
She plans to do some traveling with her husband, Wayne “Herk” Von Hagel. Plus, Von Hagel will be taking more time to go to her grandchildren’s activities.
“I reached my Rule of 88 (the sum of years taught and teacher’s age that determines when teachers can retire),” said Von Hagel. “It’s the first year I’m eligible for Early Retirement.”
Her whole career has been at the Akron-Westfield Community School. A total of 33 years with the first in the old Akron High School and the next 31 years in a “small cubby hole” at Akron-Westfield. This final year, she’s had a much larger classroom.
In addition to teaching English and Spanish throughout her career, about the last 20 years, Von Hagel has been the Journalism class teacher, which is the sponsor of the “Westerner Review” school pages in the local newspaper.
“When I started teaching Journalism, we had typewriters,” said Von Hagel, adding the students went down to the Akron Register-Tribune office to paste it up — using the old wax machine.
Now we do it all on computer and email it to The Akron Hometowner, she explained.
“I’ll miss Journalism a lot,” said Von Hagel. “Next year, Journalism won’t even be an English course. That’s really sad for me.”
The seniors will put out their last “Westerner Review” publication the week after graduation.
Highlights of her career are her memories of students, including being nominated by a student for the 2007 Excellence in Education Award.
Another highlight is the people she’s worked with — the “good part about this district is it’s a fun group of people to work with,” said Von Hagel, “and it’s fun watching the students grow up.”
“I’ll miss the kids’ energy and being with them,” she said. “I won’t miss checking their papers. I won’t miss late work, and I won’t miss Noon Duty with my 12-minute lunches.”
“I’ll miss my friends here, the camaraderie,” said Von Hagel. “It’s like another family.”
“It’s been fun to teach with some of my former students,” she said, listing Amy Johnson, Randy Kroksh, Amy Linder, Jill Schroeder, Colleen Westergard and Dwain Wilmot.
But it’s time to retire, she said. “I’m really disappointed in the school board for cutting back so much on staff that we can’t give our kids what they need.”
“From my perspective, they’re making choice based on the pocketbook versus what is best for kids,” said Von Hagel. “Sometimes we have to stretch our pocketbooks to do what’s best for kids.”
“I have had added classes this year,” she said, explaining Spanish III and Spanish IV have been combined into one class period so students only have their class every other week. Spanish III students are missing out on a whole chapter of learning because of it.
“The changes they’re talking about at the state level are not what’s best for students or for teachers,” said Von Hagel. “Standardized tests don’t show you what kids know and can do, and they’re not an effective means to evaluation what’s a good teacher and who is not. There are just so many more requirements and no money to pay for them.”
“I’ll miss my work in the Iowa Stated Education Association (ISEA),” she said. Von Hagel has served as president of the Northern Pride unit. “I’ve learned a lot and made a lot of acquaintances.”
Her Spanish I students will remember making their “papel picado” and watching the video series, “Maria,” while Spanish III students will remember teaching fourth graders. English 11 students will remember writing in their journals every day.
Some memories Von Hagel will take with her include taking field trips with the Spanish Club, which used to either have a potluck or go to a Mexican restaurant once a month, and taking students to see “Macbeth” productions at the University of South Dakota and at the Akron Opera House and “Great Expectations” at Morningside College.
“The trips we used to do were fun,” said Von Hagel.
She and fellow English/Spanish teacher Mary Jane Tapper have talked about taking a trip to Spain some day, and now there will be time for that.