In some ways, Kathy Joern was always a teacher.
While the conscious decision to pursue a career in education didn’t actually come until she reached college, Joern says she remembers writing early lesson plans to some special students.
“My dolls all went to school, and I was the teacher,” she says with a chuckle. “I think it was always there.”
Joern recently closed the door on her 37-year teaching career, retiring at the end of a 11-year stint as a second grade teacher at Muldown Elementary School.
A born-and-raised Montanan, Joern grew up in the Bitterroot and went to school at Montana State University. She got her first job at West Valley School in Kalispell but soon after moved to Salt Lake City.
After teaching kindergarten, second grade and a bit of preschool in Utah, she and her family moved back to the Flathead Valley, primarily to get her two kids in smaller and more engaged high schools, she explains.
“There’s support here. It’s different than being a number in a big high school. They’re the size of small college campuses [there],” she says.
Since starting at Muldown, a lot has changed, she says.
First, the size of the student population has grown a lot.
“When I first started it was a small school, and we’re a very large school now. There’s growing pains,” she says.
Joern also says the expectations placed on teachers have changed immensely since she started three decades ago.
She understands the changes — she sees the need for Common Core standards all the time when kids come from other areas with varying degrees of education compared to her students, and she loves the addition of social and emotional learning.
But as she says, “something else has to give.”
“I feel like as an educator, more and more is put on our plate. It used to be the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic. Now it’s so much more,” she says. “In my head, I’m always, ‘Did I teach them this? Did I get them ready for that next step?’ Especially at the end of the year, you’re kind of like a hamster on a wheel.”
Then there’s the changes that have resulted from technology.
On one hand, Joern says she loves not having to file attendance and grade books by hand and make sure they balance out every year, pointing to an invisible stack of papers four inches high.
But it’s also hard to compete with the eye-catching nature of computer programs designed for young students, even if they are intended to be educational tools.
“A kid would rather watch something on a screen than have you stand up there and deliver all the information, so I think you have to find the right balance,” she says. “Some of these kiddos get a lot of screen time at home, and then I’m thinking, ‘What about the human factor? What about the warm body standing in front of you?’”
But in the end, it’s all worth it.
Joern says she chose education over a path in business because she looked forward to getting a brand new crop of students every fall and helping them achieve the “aha” moments that teachers love so much.
For her, second grade is a neat time to work with kids.
She says she explains the age to parents as the time when most kids “get” reading.
“I take no credit for that, because kindergarten and first grade teachers have been working on that, but it all comes together for them and it’s magic. One day they’re stumbling over their words and the next it’s as smooth as can be. It’s like, ‘You got this. You’re a reader,’” she says.
“I will miss being a part of that magic.”