Generally, teachers pass on all kinds of knowledge to their students. Less often, however, do they pass on their careers.
But as Mary Jo Kohlberg retires from 26 years of teaching first grade at St. Norbert School in Florissant, she is doing just that. Maggie Sextro, whom Kohlberg taught in 1997-98, will be assuming her former teacher’s post as St. Norbert merges into All Saints Academy next year.
This transition was honored in a surprise ceremony for retiring teachers the afternoon of May 24, the penultimate day of school. Students filed in and sat on the gym floor as “Celebration” blared, and principal Pamela Gilbert told them that they wanted to take time to celebrate the four teachers retiring at the end of the year. The other retirees honored were Kathy Muesenfechter, Clare Salamone and Gail McHugh.
Gilbert called Sextro in front of the whole school, and she and Kohlberg embraced. The gym soon erupted into a dance party as students ran to grab cupcakes.
Kohlberg described Sextro as a well-behaved student, with one exception. Sextro told the story:
“My most vivid memory (of first grade),” she said, “is when I convinced Mary Jo — and my mother — that I didn’t need glasses anymore. And then I stopped reading. Well, Mary Jo caught onto that pretty quickly.”
Kohlberg said she’s loved “the people I’ve taught with, the children I’ve taught — all the individuals and all their gifts — all the parent support I’ve had. I can’t really think of anything else that makes a good teaching career.”
She also stressed the importance of creativity, saying that parents giving her freedom in the classroom allowed her to develop a variety of engaging lessons.
“I’ve been able to be as creative as I wanted to be. That’s important,” she said, particularly in allowing her students to do science experiments and projects daily.
After the brief ceremony thanking retirees and marking Kohlberg and Sextro’s transition, Kohlberg waded into the crowd and was swamped by gifts of handmade cards and notes — even a potted plant. She whispered to one student, second-grader Michael Slater, telling him that he’s “got to do something spectacular” with his gifts in life.
Through tears, Michael said that he enjoyed science with Mrs. Kohlberg, especially “playing with things that are living and non-living” because he likes plants.
“She makes everything fun,” he said.
Kohlberg emphasized students’ gifts in her teaching advice.
“Remember that all children have special gifts, and your job is to unwrap those special gifts and help them grow,” she said. “That’s your job. And enjoy the children’s individuality. That’s really it. If you do that, you’re a good teacher.”
Sextro reflected on filling the role of her former educator. “Mary Jo was always one of my favorite teachers and someone I will remember forever,” Sextro said, “and so I’m excited to kind of step into her shoes.”
After the dance party, students headed back to class. Both tears and laughter filled Kohlberg’s classroom, soon to be Sextro’s, as students finished their cupcakes and ran to recess.