End of school year bittersweet for retirees
June 07, 2013 11:00 AM
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This hasn’t completely hit them yet.

Three teachers, each with more than three decades in Indiana Area School District classrooms, will take student roll for the last time today.

Senior high teachers Cathy Schloemer (math), Gretchen Barbor (English) and Beth Grafton (music) will check off Day No. 185, the final work day for teachers on the 2012-13 calendar.

They’ll trade final witty comments with their students — because they can. They have more than been around the block with those kids.

They’ve logged a combined 105 years in Indiana classrooms: Schloemer, 36 years; Barbor, 35; and Grafton, 34.

Some people would rather see those numbers climb.

“I have some kids, especially in the junior class, who are not happy with me,” Grafton said Thursday.

Grafton, the district’s specialist in string music instruction, sympathizes.

“I have an amazingly talented bunch of juniors … these kids, you don’t want to let go of.”

Each, for her own reasons, is retiring. It’s a day they’ve anticipated for months.

But since they’ll have June, July and August to do as they please — as they have since the 1970s — their reality check may not come until late summer, when briefings from the principal, department staff meetings, and facing classrooms full of open minds will be reserved for other teachers.

Grafton, Barbor and Schloemer are the seniormost of this year’s retirees and they reached this moment in different ways.

“I think it’s true — when your colleagues say to you, ‘You’re going to know when it’s time to retire,’” Barbor explained.

The moment came, for her, in a flash last fall.

Barbor, the dramatics instructor and primary director of school plays and musicals, knew that Grafton, her virtual partner in organizing high school stage productions, planned to retire this year.

Grafton said she long ago had set 2013 as her end date in something of a long-range family business plan she and her husband decided on.

Barbor said she expected to wait other year, until the current teachers’ contract expires on June 30, 2014.

In the midst of a conversation with Grafton and music teacher Nevin Saylor, Barbor’s moment came.

“I don’t even know what we were talking about. Suddenly I looked at Beth and I just said, ‘That’s it. I’m done,’” Barbor said. “Beth said she could see the switch go off. She knew. … It was the end of September, early October. … I don’t know what was going on but I do remember the feeling. And it is a profound feeling, when you just feel, ‘I’m done. It’s time to go.’”

And so Grafton, Schloemer and Barbor have coupled their regular duties this past year with cleaning out desks and file cabinets.

With their classroom days at last numbered, there came times to reflect on what they experienced and endured, lo these three-plus decades.

None admitted to having a master plan for a teaching career.

A native of Mount Lebanon, Barbor said she wanted to be a teacher but considered being a theater professional.

“When I was a theater major (at Slippery Rock University), I realized in my junior year that I wasn’t a gypsy,” Barbor said. “I’m a very pragmatic person and I realized that I didn’t know if I could handle not having a steady job, not having a regular paycheck … so I picked up theater-education credits.”

She said she “didn’t know Indiana existed” when she interviewed here after college, and didn’t plan to stay, but met and married John Barbor and raised her family here.

Schloemer graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and student-taught in Indiana before getting her first job in the Pittsburgh city schools for the 1976-77 school year.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I wanted to be anything!” Schloemer said. “I have always been so happy with being a teacher and have never looked back. It’s been so fulfilling to do that.”

The next year, she was hired at Indiana Area Senior High School, and only has taken off two years for maternity leaves.

Grafton said she played piano and viola since her childhood in Altoona, studied at Mount Aloysius Junior College in Cresson, and was recruited into education after she transferred to IUP.

Her job at Indiana came when a string music instructor up and quit the first week of the 1979-80 school year. Grafton started Oct. 1, 1979, and over the years has been assigned to all six schools in the district — this year, she teaches classes at every building except the junior high.

They said they learned that education is an industry teachers don’t control. School administrators don’t control it. And less and less, local school boards don’t control it much.

Grafton said teachers have adapted to changes in school operations following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and school shootings, from Columbine to Connecticut.

But the advent of standardized testing, ordered by the federal and state governments, has somewhat jaundiced the teachers’ views of their work.

Education officials in Harrisburg and Washington dangle funding as the carrot for school performance in the reading, math, and now, biology tests.

“The demands on the students have changed,” Schloemer said. Indiana once required graduates to have two years of math, and many students finished after a “general math” course in 10th grade.

“Now everyone has to take three years, and the state requires passing algebra for graduation,” she said. “Now there are almost no low-level math classes for our students to go into.”

Schloemer said the mandated testing has been frustrating.

“There is certain relief in knowing that I won’t have to deal with some things,” she said. “Knowing it’s your last year, you can say, ‘I just won’t have to deal with that.’ … I think that may be a natural response, but I don’t feel good about all this state-mandated testing. But I don’t have any control over it.”

Standard tests once were meant to qualify students for scholarships or measure IQ. But those have been de-emphasized, she said.

“We spent so much time this year on testing, it was insane,” she said. “I did my best, the kids were great, and we forged on through.”

“The time spent teaching for the tests takes away from teaching in the classroom. And there’s stress associated with the results,” Grafton said. That’s because her subject area, music, isn’t being tested.

“Expectations are higher, but at the same time, the amount of time given to fulfill expectations is depleted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the elementary schools for music instruction and the kids weren’t available because they were in a testing situation. ... It’s horribly imbalanced.”

“When I went into education 35 years ago … I never thought politics would impact my job as much as it has,” Barbor said. “And to any new educator going into it — if you are not proactive about your job, if you are not politically involved, you are a fool. Because things will happen that will have an impact on who you are, how you do your business, and your accountability for those kids in your classroom.”

Parents have changed over the years, they said, and not necessarily for the better.

“When I first started teaching, parents believed in what the teachers were doing,” Grafton said. “If the kids were messing up in school, the parents would say, ‘We’re going to take care of it at home.’

“More and more, that’s not the case. Now it is, ‘What did you do to my kid to make him behave this way?’ They’re more likely to address the teacher than the kid’s behavior.”

“Stop being a helicopter parent,” Barbor said.

“There’s a real strong sense of entitlement, and a lot of students have parents who will fight their battles for them. That’s the difference,” Barbor said. “When we were kids, we took our lumps and our parents supported the teacher. … Now, I have so many parents who just hover over their kids.”

But it’s the kids, the students, who generally have stayed the same, the teachers said.

“Do you know what amazes me? How many graduates we’ve had in the arts at IHS that have gone on to do great things,” Barbor said. “I challenge any other program in the school district to try to hold up a number count of graduates who have gone on to do great things in their areas versus the arts — visual arts, dance, music and theater. … We have scores of kids that have gone on. And arts are always on the (budget) chopping block, and I don’t understand that.”

Grafton said she had the advantage of teaching kids who wanted to be in her class, an elective course.

“They’re there because they want to be, and it makes strings instruction so vastly different from the regular classroom,” she said. “I can count on one hand the number of discipline referrals I’ve had to make.

“The ones that love music are working very hard. Yes, some want to goof off ... and you have to keep an eye on them so they don’t bring down the other kids.

“I still feel as though I can connect with them. They make me feel effective.”

In the junior-high general music class, Grafton said her challenge was to inspire the kids who were there only because the class was required.

“It was music, and if I presented it the right way, they enjoyed it,” she said.

“It fascinates me, when I have students who may struggle in my class, and I go watch them play music, sing, or in a drama performance or on the football field,” Schloemer said. “They can be so outstanding in one of these other areas, and math just may not be an area where they apply themselves or have a particular interest. … So I like to get out and see them in different venues, and see them in shows or their art hanging in the halls, or playing on the football field. It’s just so interesting to see the students in so many different places.”

“I have some great students this year; this is a great year to go out,” Barbor said. “I think that when you retire, you should go out at the top of your game. You should retire when you’re still having fun, when you love it, and when you’ll miss it — but not that much!”

Barbor stifled a tear — then offered strong advice for students.

“If a kid can come to me and talk to me about an issue, then I really admire that. Next year they’re going to be in college, and they need to be able to do that with their professors. And after that, they are going to need to do that in interviews, or with employers or clients. They need to learn in high school they have to fight their own battles, and be their own best advocates.”

Schloemer had advice for new teachers with hopes of 30-year careers.

“Be passionate about what you do,” she said. “If you’re not going to be passionate, it’s not going to be good for you or for the kids.”

About the time this story is considered “published” today, Schloemer, Grafton and Barbor will see students dismissed for the last time. Indiana Area School District has scheduled a half day of classes, and the teachers have an afternoon of in-service duties — for the last time.

Even then, their careers won’t be done.

The teachers will be suiting up in caps and gowns to join the Class of 2013 seniors for their procession at commencement this evening. Grafton will be directing the orchestra in “Pomp and Circumstance.”

That’s when it may hit home for some of them.

“I’ll finally get to ‘graduate’ from high school!” Schloemer said.

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