Out of Retirement

Friday, January 17, 2020

It is not uncommon for people to get called back into the game of work, after retiring, because they are needed for their talents. Check any major college, or pro sports team, and somewhere, people are getting called back to coach, or even play. And the answer is simple: their hard-fought expertise, and accumulated knowledge, might be a key to help fill a gap, on a struggling team.

For Darlene Still, who is back teaching home economics at Alta High School after retiring back in 2014, the questions were many for her on returning to the fold of teaching. “I am admittedly tired by the end of the day, since I’m older, but the old standards remain. Teach what you love, utilize every moment you have within each class period, set the bars high, and love on these wonderful students.

“However, I am learning quickly that I have been getting blind-sided. I was prepared for the curriculum. I was prepared for the regimen that high school chaos can bring. I was prepared to be out of the loop with technology, but no one, no one could have prepared me for falling in love again with the students. I tear up thinking about the joy that teaching brings,” says Darlene.

To see the light bulbs go off in their heads when they figure something out, and learning as much from students as they do from her, has re-ignited the passion for teaching in Darlene, and she knows that she’s been better for it.

“My 1974 Holstein High school year book had a ‘where do you see yourself in four years’ question, and I had completed the blank with ‘teaching home economics in some small town school” says Darlene. Talk about foresight. Yet, Darlene went the non-traditional route: attending Iowa State University for three years, transferring, getting married, having a baby, then returning back to Westmar, when her daughter was age 3. Darlene received her teaching degree in the fall semester of 1982. The problem was that home economics teachers were hanging on tightly to their positions, and fighting to keep their full-time status, as their programs were realigned by school budgets.

“I was a farmer’s wife without a ‘relocation’ factor. So, while I waited for the ‘magic opening’ of a job possibility, I substituted whenever, and wherever I could. I was fortunate to interview, and get hired for a long-term maternity leave in the Aurelia home economics department,” says Darlene. After serving several long-term stints in the Aurelia art and home economics departments, a full-time home economics position became available at Alta. There was Darlene’s opening, and she went for it. Thus, a 28 year run as a teacher started for Darlene, and it has not been without its ups, and downs.

“I worked, and recruited every year I taught, just to ensure that I would dodge the budget cuts, and pink-slip bullets. I remember I was ecstatic to finally have a school within my home’s range, that had an opening for my vocation,” says Darlene.

Darlene has had other opportunities come up to apply for jobs in other districts, but according to her, she honestly never wanted to leave the Alta-Aurelia district. “The students were wonderful, the parents were very supportive, and the staff was always an integral, connective group. During my span, the Alta-Aurelia FCS department became very well-equipped, and the freedom for innovation, and ever-changing curriculum was always welcomed, and appreciated,” say Darlene.

In addition to the changes made in her department, Darlene also helped design the new vocational addition within the A-A district, which she describes as top-notch, and very functional.

Her decision to retire in 2014 was based on a few factors: one, the Alta board offered a great retirement package, and her youngest grandson was going to be attending part-time pre-school, at that point. “My husband Bob, and I, have a daughter, and she and her husband have two sons, so I viewed that opportunity to help out her family, and have one last chance at Grandma Daycare, before full-time school became part of both boys lives,” says Darlene, with a smile.

For the farmer’s wife, life settled into family, living on their acreage, and scheduling her time, according to retirement. Darlene did not substitute teach even a single day, in a three-year period, as she enjoyed her time as her own.

Then, slowly, some things started to come up that got her back on the road to teaching. A ten-week stint subbing at River Valley, in their family and consumer department, which led to more sub jobs at River Valley, then Alta, then Ridge View Middle School. One day, Darlene received a text from a colleague that worked alongside her during her Alta days, stating that the district could use her help, and that she really needed to return for one year.

“I substituted a maternity leave in Alta, for five weeks of the 2019 school year. My sister wisely told me that this was the test to see how it goes. I think she was honestly thinking about whether I could physically, and mentally handle returning. I was seriously worried about how the students would receive having an old lady, with old-fashioned methods,” says Darlene.

That month of May gave Darlene the confidence to say yes to a one-year contract. While it took some serious work to manage her IPERS, and Social Security benefits, things have worked out better than Darlene expected. Darlene spent the summer unearthing some of her old curriculum files, and getting help moving the classroom back in order, to fit her style of teaching.

“I have had to re-teach the methods, and expectations that I always maintained, in my previous teaching experience. But I have had very accepting, kind students who have proven that structure is still their favorite methodology, and that the higher the standards, the more they achieve,” says Darlene.

Darlene has proven, given a chance, and resilience and flexibility, that people can return to the job market, to do a job that they love, regardless of age.

For Darlene, it’s been a chance to revisit a job that has shaped her life a great deal earlier on, with a new lease. “Being an educator is still the best vocation in the world,” says Darlene.