Koether reflects on 50-year education career

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MFL MarMac students and teacher Pam Havlicek embrace elementary principal Kathy Koether, who is retiring from a 50-year career in education. A majority of that time was at MFL MarMac, where Koether was a third grade teacher and later elementary principal. (Submitted photos)

MFL MarMac elementary students presented principal Kathy Koether with plans for a bench in honor of her 50 years in education. The bench will be placed near the new entrance to the elementary school.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Kathy Koether is closing the book on a 50-year career in education—a majority of which has been within the MFL MarMac School District as a third grade teacher and later elementary principal.


Her journey, though, started in Oelwein, where Koether said her farm background convinced the principal she’d have a strong work ethic. She taught third grade there for three years before moving to Giard and taking a third grade position in Luana in 1976.


“Third grade was in Luana until the early 90s, then moved to Monona. There were more kids in the hall and a schedule and routine change, but we easily adapted,” Koether recalled.


In 1999, Koether resigned as a teacher and became elementary principal at Valley School. She remembers welcoming a new family to the district the first week of school. 


“I helped walk the third grade student to her room and support her. She was crying because she didn’t want to go into the third grade classroom,” Koether said. “I remember I was crying because I did. I wanted to go back and be a teacher again instead of taking on the responsibility of all these people.”


But after the first week, her perspective changed.


“I decided that, while being a third grade teacher was great, and I could look at the 20 students I could influence in a classroom, now I have the ability to help more than 200 students and families,” she said.


Koether remained at Valley until 2007, when she came “home” to serve as MFL MarMac’s elementary principal—a position she’s held ever since.


“This is my 15th year, which has gone so fast. It seemed like I blinked and it’s over with,” she reflected.


Koether has valued her strong working relationships with administration, office staff and, of course, teachers. She recalled collaborating on committee work, school safety, professional development and other areas. 


“My relationships with the teachers have been great,” she said. “Walking into the classrooms and seeing the things they are doing with kids, the independence they give kids and now the more project-oriented work. When I first started teaching, everyone sat in rows and everyone did the same assignment. That has drastically changed, and it’s been all for the good.”


Working together has been especially important this year, as the elementary building underwent renovations and a new addition that are now nearing completion.


“The construction this year has been a challenge, and took a lot of planning and some patience, but we’re going to be pleased with the outcome,” Koether said.


Then there are the students—often multiple generations—that Koether has been able to interact with and watch grow over the years.


Despite the demands of being principal, she read with students weekly before school. She offered students rides to school if they couldn’t make it that day and confidentially distributed weekend snack packs as well as winter clothing donated by community members. 


“It’s easier for the hats, coats and gloves, but the boots are a little trickier because we don’t know sizes,” she said. “The fun part is the kids go with me in the car over to Farm and Home and we try on boots and they get to pick them out. Sometimes two or three kids at a time. That’s a good project, and I think people know they can depend on this. There have been lots of contributions from churches and individuals.”


While curriculum and academics have been a strong focus at the school, Koether stressed the importance of social emotional as part of the whole child. The elementary focused on the “Bulldog Way” and how kindness goes a long way.


“My approach to discipline has also been a little different,” Koether shared. “I’ve made the kids be in on the discussion and help solve problems. We always try to think of a solution and plan by the end of our conversation—how we can do better for the future. I tell them things will go a lot better and faster if they just tell the truth and are honest from the beginning. It’s training instead of consequences given. That’s been a good thing.”


Koether said students made books for her, and this approach was referenced.


“They talked a lot about coming in and talking about issues, hearing all sides of the story and being fair. That makes a big difference to me, that they saw that too,” she noted.


Some of Koether’s fondest moments have been the challenges she’s completed during reading month. As a reward for students meeting their reading goals, she’s kissed a fish, read and thrown candy from the school rooftop, been taped to the wall and performed dance routines—including this year. 


“One of the first years was ‘kiss a pig, do a jig and wear a wig.’ I remember a great big pink beehive wig. We also had Camp Read-a-Lot and set up logs and read stories. I think one time I dressed up as a bear. We’ve had a lot of good themes,” she recalled. “The kids like to have fun, and they like to see the adults in the building having fun too.”


Koether has enjoyed watching students come into the school system, grow and expand their knowledge base and potential and become successful. 


“That’s the most rewarding of all,” she said. “I can see the whole picture and how much progress they’ve made. I love to see kids motivated, self-directed, enthusiastic and cheering in their classroom about something they’ve accomplished.”


It’s hard to say goodbye to that, Koether admitted. She’ll miss interacting with people, so will likely fill retirement with social activities and remain involved with the Clayton County Historic Preservation Commission and Clayton County Energy District as well as the Giard Methodist Church.


Through their books to her and in a video posted on the MFL MarMac social media pages, students offered their own suggestions. 


“Someone said, ‘Lay on the couch and drink coffee,’” Koether said, smiling. Another referenced dancing, one of her favorite hobbies. “It has a ship and it’s sort of like the Titanic. I’m in a red dress out at the bow. It says, ‘She will dance, and dance, and dance till dawn.’ It’s such a good one.”


As she looks back on her career, Koether is thankful for the community for giving her the opportunity to serve.


“I wouldn’t even care if I’m paid to do this job. It’s about the community support and the things you’re doing for kids,” she said. “It doesn’t seem so much like a job, but a fun thing that’s happened in my life.”

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