Verona Area High School teacher Jennifer Wolfe got a card in the mail recently with three signatures.
Two were from her former students in French class at VAHS, congratulating her on her upcoming retirement.
“They signed it with their two names and the name of their 2 year old,” Wolfe said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys ended up getting married and you had a child.’ They were in French class together.
“Those moments, I wouldn’t trade away for anything.”
Getting to know students and celebrating their growth was a joy shared by each of the four teachers retiring from the high school this year. They leave with a combined 110 years of experience in the district, four of the nine certified staff retirees this school year.
Mark Kryka, the athletic director and a former elementary school phy ed teacher, leads the group with 36. Wolfe is close behind at 33, while special education teachers Faye Hoban and Richard Engen have 24 and 17 respectively.
Another six support staff members are also retiring this year – including two at the high school in special education assistant Deb Szarka and Natatorium staffer Sue Evans.
At an April school board meeting to approve the retirements, Meredith Stier Christensen joked she did not want to allow them, calling the group “such wonderful professionals.”
“The lives that they have touched collectively are huge,” she said.
For Kryka, those were at first elementary students, then high school athletes.
As the high school grew from about 500 students to 1,700 now, what was once a part-time position turned into a “24/7 job” that required him to stop teaching. But he still got to watch as students achieved their dreams, whether while a Wildcat or after graduation.
“We’ve had a lot of success,” Kryka said. “There’s been some great athletes that have come through here over the years, from Olympic gold medalists to all state competitors, state champions. It’s been fun to work with them.”
Engen and Hoban each got into education through experiences with their own children.
Hoban volunteered in the Madison Metropolitan School District while her daughters were in elementary school and “had a lot of fun as a room parent.” She eventually got a part-time position at Sugar Creek, loved it, and decided to get certified in special education.
“It’s a very rewarding thing,” Hoban said. “It’s more than a job, it’s a calling, almost.”
Engen recalled meeting with his children’s teachers one year and being unsatisfied with some of their answers.
He thought, “Man, I can do what those teachers do,” and ended up in special education at Savanna Oaks Middle School after working in two other districts.
Nearly two decades later, he’s glad he spent so much of his career here, having also become the boys tennis coach at VAHS.
“A lot of times it’s how the community reacts to the school,” Engen said. “When you’ve got that community support, it really makes a difference.”
When Kryka began as athletic director in 1989 after six years at Sugar Creek Elementary School, there were “no computers, no email, no voicemail.”
That meant quite a lot of writing down, especially when it came to rescheduling games or setting up tournaments. Now, he’s got his calendar on his computer and can send emails to other athletic directors when a rainy spring forces softball and baseball cancellations.
“I don’t have to write anything down now,” he said with a smile.
The years have also brought some new challenges, he said, especially in finding officials for games. There’s nothing he hates like seeing empty softball or baseball fields on a sunny, 80 degree spring day because they couldn’t line up umpires for a make up game.
He’s now ready to “start enjoying some of the family things I’ve missed out on,” especially with his two grandchildren, but still expects to be in the stands for plenty of Wildcats games.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it – well, I can’t say every minute,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed most of it, and I’m looking forward to taking a step back and becoming a fan and a spectator and watching what they do.”
Wolfe has avoided any feeling of “senioritis,” wanting to “go out on a high note” as she finishes her career.
All but one year of it was spent in Verona, where her husband also taught for 25 years.
“It has just been everything to our family,” she said. “I just could never imagine teaching anywhere else.”
She said the professional development opportunities have been wonderful, and she lauded the district’s work toward personalizing lessons for students. She acknowledged that limited resources have made it challenging to make big changes to the “factory-based model” that was in place when she began.
Students were always her favorite part, finding a way to do “something to make me laugh” every day. Even on bad days, she said, finding that positive moment kept her coming back the following day.
“Instead of taking home the, ‘Oh my God, I so messed up,’ You try to pull out the one thing you did well,” she said. “No matter how bad your day is, there’s something good about your day.”
Hoban said she “always looked forward to coming into work.”
Much of the reason was the students she was working with, some of whom she followed from Sugar Creek up through middle and high school, where she eventually settled.
“It was very, very interesting,” she said. “I learned so much at all the different levels.”
She pointed to moments of community support, like the referendum approving a new high school, as among the best of “many” memories. The district’s work toward equity was another high point for her, and she recalled the start of that initiative being an important time in her career as the district “became aware of the inequities in the school system, not through our fault necessarily, but just the way society is,” and tried to address them.
She plans to move to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to her daughters, but is trying to enjoy what’s left of the “great place” she worked in for 24 years.
“Each day as it passes by right now is really precious,” she said.
Engen began as a teacher in regular education classrooms, but found he “was really drawn to the kids that were struggling.”
After working in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire school districts, he came to VASD as a building substitute at Savanna Oaks Middle School. He eventually landed as a long-term substitute with special education students, which “confirmed” that was what he wanted to do.
By 2005, he had earned his master’s in special education.
He said he’ll especially miss working with those kids and seeing them change during their time working with him.
“My wife always says, ‘Kids get older by four years, you stay the same age,’” he joked. “You see all the changes and the growth and the fallback and mistakes.”
He’ll also miss his tennis players, who he said allowed him to see students “away from the school, in a different light.”
“I try to get involved in stuff where I see kids outside the school,” he said. “That’s made a big difference, because you see them in all different atmospheres.”