Longtime Mills Lawn teachers retire
- Published: June 23, 2021
This is the second of two articles featuring teachers who have retired from the local school district this academic year. Last week the News focused on third-grade teacher Margaret “Peg” Morgan and high school English teacher Desiree Nickell. This week spotlights sixth-grade teacher Jody Pettiford, third-grade teacher Vickie Hitchcock and intervention specialist Linda Kalter. Kalter retired effective Dec. 31, while the others concluded their teaching tenures this spring.
How do you pack up a 40-year teaching career and say goodbye to the profession — and school — you love?
It’s not done without some tears, says Jody Pettiford, who retired this spring as a longtime sixth-grade teacher at Mills Lawn Elementary, after 31 years at the school.
“Like the saying, ‘If you have a job you love, you don’t work a day in your life.’ That was true for me,” Pettiford said last month in an interview at the school.
Pettiford’s history at Mills Lawn extends even further back than her teaching career, as she was also a student there in the mid-to-late ’60s, having grown up in the village. Her memories include playing on the porch of the original Mills house when it still stood behind the school that bears its name. And except for a year in California as a young adult, she’s lived in Yellow Springs her whole life, raising her own children here. She did her student teaching at Mills Lawn, in Betty Felder’s classroom, as well.
After getting her teaching degree from Wilmington College, Pettiford taught briefly at a Catholic school during her time in California before returning to the area. She then taught in Springfield Schools for eight years. Being hired, then, at Mills Lawn “was like coming home,” she said.
“You couldn’t work at a better school,” she said.
Her decision to retire at the end of this school year was based on family considerations, but the leaving has proven more difficult than she anticipated.
“I’m a teacher. That’s who I am,” she said, pulling out a poem she wrote in the late 1990s titled “My Class,” which features the line “I live to teach and teach to live.”
Her feelings for her profession were grounded in her feelings about children.
“Kids just want to know that they’re important and that they’re cared about,” Pettiford said. “I wanted to make certain that they were noticed.”
She said the birth of her own children — Anthony, Addison and AnnDee — solidified her sense of purpose.
“I wanted to be the teacher I wanted them to have,” she said.
Pettiford’s goal was to make her classroom more than a place to recite facts; she wanted to foster an environment that supported development of the whole child, including a sense of personal autonomy and responsibility.
“I taught what my grandfather taught me: ‘Character is how you act when no one’s watching.’ ”
She saw her role as a “guide,” she said. And she was less concerned with grades than students’ engagement in the learning process. “I wanted them to know that it’s about the journey, not the destination. There’s no learning that just stops.”
Toward that end, Pettiford said she “tried to be innovative.”
Some of her favorite projects included an end-of-year Civil War-themed campout at John Bryan State Park; an annual Egypt Night, which eventually evolved into A Night at the Museum presentation; and building a large space station out of mylar in front of the school.
“We also wrote letters to World War II veterans thanking them for their service, and you would not believe the letters we got back,” she added.
The district’s implementation of Project-based Learning as a cornerstone of the curriculum easily matched what she was already doing, she said.
In addition to her classroom activities, Pettiford also served on the school’s Black History Month Committee; as advisor of the safety patrol; and advisor for the Student Council, whose activities included hosting an annual Veterans Day event that welcomed local vets to the school for a special lunch and program.
Many of her traditional activities had to be set aside this past year, however, as the district adopted a remote-learning model amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, Pettiford counts this year as one of the best in her career. She credits her working relationship with fellow sixth-grade teacher Ryan Montross (who is moving out of state) as the reason for the successful experience.
“Our strengths complemented each other,” she said. “Ryan Montross and I decided that we were going to teach regardless. We were going to engage kids and let them know that learning happens [in different settings].”
Before the academic year began, the two teachers put together a binder of hands-on activities for each student to do at home.
“They were being independent learners. They were figuring out what they needed to do to learn. Ryan and I were just so thrilled.”
In looking back at her teaching years at Mills Lawn, Pettiford said she also feels deep gratitude to her three children for their supportive presence.
“My kids grew up at Mills Lawn,” she said. “They came to school with me. They had to stay with me when I stayed late. My classroom ended up being like our home. … I don’t think I could have done anything without my kids. … I got really lucky.”
She’s not sure what’s next.
“I’m going to breathe a minute,” and take some time to process the new life change, she said.
She can see herself eventually taking on a new role within her profession.
“Part of me would love to work with college students who want to go into education,” she said. “Being a teacher, it’s something that’s inside your soul, something that’s inside your heart.”
Despite the difficulty of saying goodbye, Pettiford finds fulfillment in thinking about the young people who have passed through her classroom over the years.
“I’ve had some incredible kids who have gone off to do incredible things,” she said. “It’s nice to think you were a guide on their journey, and you hopefully made a difference.”
Cedarville native Vickie Hitchcock ended her teaching career in a fourth-grade classroom, but her 30-year tenure with Yellow Springs schools — the only district where she ever worked — saw her taking on a variety of roles at both of the district’s campuses.
She taught a variety of high school and middle school classes, and served a stint as assistant principal at the middle/high school, before moving over to the elementary school.
“I did my student teaching at Yellow Springs, and just stayed,” Hitchcock said last month, in a phone interview from the family farm where she grew up.
She said going into education felt natural. Teaching “was in our blood,” she said of her family, where her maternal grandfather was a principal, her mother a teacher, her father an agriculture teacher — earning his degree “with the GI Bill after World War II” — and her sister a teacher and a principal.
Guidance from now-retired high school principal Cynthia Holt was also formative during Hitchcock’s student teaching experience.
“She just really took me under her wing and mentored me,” Hitchock said. “She showed me ‘this is how you do things.’”
With license in hand, Hitchcock’s first job with the district was teaching business education at the high school — “typing and accounting” — a class that no longer exists. Then, after getting certification to teach grades one through eight, a multi-subject license, she moved to middle school instruction, variously teaching math, English, social studies and science. She also earned a master’s degree in curriculum and technology, followed by her principal’s certification.
In becoming assistant principal at the middle/high school, she said part of her focus was curriculum design. She was also on the hiring committee that brought Desiree Nickell and now middle/high school Principal Jack Hatert into the district.
She takes satisfaction in their successful integration in the schools, especially in watching Hatert move from teaching into administration.
“He’s a great young man,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got good ethics and morals, and kids need to see that.”
After 20 years at the middle/high school, she moved to Mills Lawn. She first taught in sixth- and fifth-grade classrooms, and then for the last five years, in fourth.
“I think that’s as young as I needed to go,” she said with a chuckle, noting that she expected a level of independent learning among her students.
She said she valued her time at Mills Lawn, and was inspired by her colleagues there.
“I can’t say enough about the teachers at Mills Lawn,” Hitchcock said. “They work so hard, and they’ve been through so much,” she added, referring to the challenges of teaching through the pandemic.
She also appreciates district Superintendent Terri Holden. “She has been so supportive of me,” Hitchcock said. “I think she is good for the district.”
The past year was particularly difficult for Hitchcock, whose family experienced ill health and loss. She also personally contracted COVID-19 in December, when classes were being conducted online by teachers working out of their classrooms. She didn’t take any time off, she said, just shifted to working temporarily from home.
The health difficulties of the year, and the needs of her family, including her 90-year-old mother, are what led Hitchcock to retire now, she said.
“I was planning on teaching for several more years,” she said. But the pandemic changed her focus.
“I just want to spend more time with family,” she said.
She also anticipates having more time to pursue her personal interests.
“I’m an avid reader, but I’ve found when I’m teaching that I can’t read for pleasure,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to reading for pleasure.”
She also enjoys “being outside and gardening,” she said. “And travel. The usual — what people want to do,” when they retire.
While she anticipated teaching a bit longer, she feels that she’s leaving the profession at a good time for her, family concerns aside.
“I guess I’m old-fashioned,” she said. “Children today are different from children 30 years ago. [They] have to be entertained. They’re more impatient, wanting to get things done now.”
She blames the change on the culture’s heavy use of technology, though she said she has long loved technology, having studied it in her master’s work. She worries that excessive screen time has “made children not be so social. They don’t know how to play together, how to resolve conflict.”
But she’s grateful for her time in the classroom.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.
Having retired Dec. 31, intervention specialist Linda Kalter has a six-month jump on her former colleagues.
Retirement for Kalter, who taught in various settings for 45 years, has not involved slowing down.
“I’ve been extremely busy,” she said with a chuckle during a recent phone call from her home in Xenia.
“It’s good,” she said of the transition. “I really enjoy it.”
Making the experience particularly sweet, she said, is spending time with her 10 grandchildren, ages eight months to 14 years.
The birth of two grandchildren late last year was a large factor in her decision to bring her professional career to a close.
“I have a really large family, and a lot of needs to fulfill,” she said. “It was a good time for me to retire because you can’t do everything.”
With four grandkids in diapers, “it’s a different form of service,” she said of her current focus.
Nonetheless, she still misses teaching, she said. “I miss the school, the kids, the staff.”
As much as she’s enjoying retirement, she’s not surprised by her feelings about leaving her profession. She put a lot of time and heart into teaching.
“I love to serve, and I loved to serve kids with difficulties,” she said.
She hadn’t planned to become a teacher, she said. In fact, she once “really opposed” the idea of pursuing what she saw as a “traditional women’s role.”
After college at the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she and her husband joined the Peace Corps, serving in Tunisia, North Africa. When they returned to the States, she started working in a daycare.
“I discovered that I really enjoyed that.”
It was the mid-1970s, and there was a shortage of special education teachers at the time. Wright State University initiated a fast-track program where bachelor’s degree holders could get a master’s of education and study for special ed licensure in less than two years.
“It was a good program,” Kalter said. “It was very intensive.”
She taught in several area districts, including Clinton-Massie and Centerville, until she became a mother, after which she went back to school and got another master’s degree in Montessori education. She then spent 20 years in Montessori settings, teaching preschool and early elementary as well as serving a brief tenure as an administrator.
With the aging of her children, she eventually returned to a public school classroom.
“That’s how I ended up in Yellow Springs,” she said.
“Dan Mecoli was [Mills Lawn] principal, and in my first or second year, we achieved a Blue Ribbon for the arts. I knew right then that this was an exciting place.”
“Every year was an adventure,” she said of her role as an intervention specialist, who works with students whose needs aren’t fully served by general classroom instruction alone.
“When you’re an intervention specialist, you get a different mix every year,” Kalter said. “You have to be creative” — to meet the individual needs of each student identified as eligible for services.
Some of her favorite memories involve projects with students. One year, she had two students in wheelchairs.
“We decided we were going to discover which places in town were inaccessible,” she recalled. “On our first trip out, we couldn’t get across the street.”
Kalter discovered there wasn’t a curb cut in front of the school at that time. She said her students were well aware of the absence, however, informing her that they had to travel down the sidewalk to find access to the street. The Village at the time was in the process of adding more curb cuts around town, and the school eventually got one out in front, but Kalter said the project was eye-opening. The whole fourth grade eventually got involved as well, creating a map of downtown that revealed multiple limitations in accessibility. They then shared their findings with the Village.
She said she felt fortunate at Mills Lawn to work with a staff that was “flexible, creative and collaborative.”
“We always had a philosophy to just value every person,” Kalter added.
She believes students thrive when they know teachers care.
“Children feel it,” she said. “Children benefit from all of that.”
Kalter said she has been inspired in her work by memories of growing up with an aunt who used a wheelchair.
“She was a model for me,” Kalter said. “She didn’t take no for an answer,” especially when people tried to limit her. She believed “there’s always a way to solve the problem.”
It was a lesson Kalter tried to give her students. Her message: “Don’t be defeated. Always have that victory consciousness [to say] ‘I can do it.’”
She said she treasured her time as a teacher.
“There were so many wonderful students that I had. It was great to be able to help them. It’s been a great journey.”