When Sun Prairie native JoBeth Kroetz started her career as an educator in Stamford, Connecticut in 1988, the goal was to move out of the state and teach in different places than home.
But that’s exactly where Kroetz, a third grade Sugar Creek teacher, will finish her career – physically in her home, teaching students from her living room.
“I never thought I would retire through online virtual learning,” she said. “I get up like a regular school day and I set up my classroom in my living room with my dogs watching me.”
That’s the reality for a dozen teachers from five Verona Area School District sites who will be retiring at the end of the school year. They have all transitioned to virtual learning for the last two and a half months of their teaching careers after schools closed because of COVID-19.
The retirees include four Verona Area High School teachers: Richard Dow (32 years), Stephen Lewis (27), Patrice Lynam (25), Michael Ray (31) and Dave Richardson (20). Savanna Oaks Middle School will also lose three staff members: Heidi Becker (19), Ann Fredrickson (29) and Jean Marty (33).
Other retiring staff include Stoner Prairie’s Gale Chartier (27) and Kathleen Gee-Bennett (25), Sugar Creek’s Jobeth Kroetz (24) and Badger Ridge’s Susan Reddan (25).
Dow, a self-proclaimed “old school teacher” said he will miss his projector and transparency slides after he retires. He said the transition to virtual learning in the last two months has resulted in him needing to change his mindset.
“It’s kind of surreal – I look back on all of the stuff I used to do at the high school,” he said. “The new paradigm is significantly different than what I’m used to … it’s a good, good time to be done.”
Marty, a Savanna Oaks Middle School teacher, said ending her career in the middle of a global pandemic and doing virtual learning is saddening. For the last two months, the thing she enjoys most as a teacher – one-on-one interactions with the students and community building aspects like advisory periods – isn’t possible.
There’s also a lot of unknowns as to how students are doing, Marty added, even though district staff are doing what they can to reach out to families.
“We worry – does this kid have a place to sleep at night, is this kid getting food?” she said. “So many things that I think the schools take care of for kids … (it’s) a security blanket beyond academics.”
In her 24 years with the district, Kroetz has been a staff member at just under half of the school sites.
A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate, Kroetz moved to New York to be a nanny while getting her graduate degree, and then stayed at an elementary school in Connecticut for her first 10 years before moving home to Wisconsin to be closer to family.
“I wanted to see the world, and so I thought if I travel out to a different area out east, I could experience a little bit different culture, different people, different family styles,” she said.
Kroetz started in 1996 as a substitute teacher at Sugar Creek Elementary, where she will be ending her career. She moved around where she was needed during her tenure, she said, going first to the new Savanna Oaks Elementary School when it opened for the 1996-97 academic year. When Savanna Oaks became a middle school, she transferred over to the new Country View Elementary School before going to Stoner Prairie.
When redistricting took place in 2006, Kroetz was asked where she wanted to go, and she volunteered for Sugar Creek.
“All of the schools are wonderful, but Sugar Creek just had that community feeling that I felt really comfortable (in),” she said. “It just reminded me of my growing up time in elementary school.
“To me, wherever they needed me to go, if they needed someone, I was there,” Kroetz added.
In retirement, Kroetz plans to take the summer off for the first time since she was in sixth grade – no summer school, no part-time jobs – and work on her garden and go fishing at her cabin in northern Wisconsin before volunteering.
But she’ll miss seeing students have breakthroughs in their learning, Kroetz said, or moments when former students will send her letters or emails thanking her for her contributions to their education.
“I think what I’ll miss the most is when I see those kids have that ‘a-ha’ moment when they get it, and they’re excited about learning and they’re proud of their work or what they’ve done, and they can’t wait to show me,” she said. “Those kinds of things are really important to me.”
Dow started his teaching career on the other side of the world.
As a member of the Peace Corps, he taught in Swaziland – which officially became Eswatini in 2018 – in Southern Africa after he graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a biology and wildlife management degree.
He walked by a Peace Corps flyer on campus, and six months later, Dow was teaching science to students in the English language in Swaziland.
“I found out that I liked teaching, so I came back to the States after about three years and I got my teaching degree,” he said. “It was the long, circuitous route.”
When he came back to the United States, Dow took a part-time special education substitute teacher position in the Delavan-Darien School District, and then went to Whitewater Unified School District for a year before getting hired in Verona in 1988.
In his retirement, Dow plans to move back to Stevens Point and create a showcase garden in his new large backyard, and will consider dipping his toe back into teaching as a substitute.
As a learner who struggled through his college years, Dow said, one of the most fulfilling things in his career was helping students who needed extra help with their education.
“School was never, ever easy (for me) – it was a struggle all the way through,” he said. “Kids that struggle – it’s an exciting thing to support them and see them actually flourish.”
Other than a six-year stint at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, if Marty was involved in education, either as a student or a teacher, it was done in VASD.
An alumni of VAHS, she started off at UW-Madison as a journalism major, but transitioned to education after some of her former teachers set up volunteer opportunities at the high school.
“I decided I really, really liked (education), so I went back for another year and a half and got my teaching degree,” she said. “They said, ‘oh, you’ll never end up at Verona for student teaching, because we just don’t do that.’
“Well, sure enough, I ended back up at Verona,” Marty added.
Marty became an English teacher in 1987 during a large hiring boom, as the district split what was Verona Elementary School into Sugar Creek and Stoner Prairie in Fitchburg. She was one of the founding members of the Badger Ridge Middle School, which opened in January 1992.
Before BRMS was built, she didn’t have a room of her own and would move around the building each day with students to whatever space was available at the time. That meant sometimes Marty taught in the library or the kiln room, where it was so hot during the early and late parts of the school year that “the floor (would) sweat,” she said.
In retirement, Mary said she doesn’t have any concrete plans, but is toying around with the idea of being a barista, or volunteering with the Badger Prairie Needs Network, veterans organizations or American Players Theater once it’s safe to do so.
Marty said she’ll miss her colleagues and the students, as well as the routine that a school day brings her.
“It’s about the people, the teachers, the kids,” she said. “I feel really lucky … I’m very proud to have grown up and live in a community that values education so much.”