Fittingly, the strains of Alice Cooper's "School's Out" played over the speakers as students at Newton's Sunset Elementary let out on May 21 — the last day of the school year.
While school is out for summer for the students, for at least one individual roaming the halls of Sunset it is now out "forever," as second-grade teacher Charlene Vierthaler dismissed her final class last week and will now be entering retirement.
Vierthaler is stepping away after nearly four decades in the classroom — a majority of those (24 years) at Sunset and nearly all in her hometown of Newton, including stints at Lincoln Elementary (before its transformation) and St. Mary Catholic School.
Early on in her career, Vierthaler was shaping the minds of older students, having taught fifth, sixth and seventh grade. When she took the position at Lincoln, she dropped down to third grade and then taught second grade through the entirety of her time at Sunset. She admitted she was drawn to that level because of the more formative impact she could have on her students.
"It was easier to do interventions when they were younger rather than try to fix things when they were in sixth grade and they'd had years of not being successful," Vierthaler said.
Choosing to enter the teaching profession was somewhat of a family affair for Vierthaler, as she admitted several relatives were in the education field, so it seemed "kind of natural" to follow on that path. With that inclination and an ability to relate to her students, she said it all meshed together to steer her in that direction.
Her family of educators was not the only thing that influenced her teaching career, though, as she said her own daughters shaped who she was as a teacher as well.
Witnessing the challenges her daughters faced in school and experiencing firsthand that work-life balance made Vierthaler change the way she approached her role in the classroom.
"Once I had my own kids, I looked at things totally different," Vierthaler said. "I was a different teacher before I had kids."
Along with trying to bring more compassion and kindness to the classroom (preaching the golden rule), Vierthaler said she has always tried to be lenient and understanding of the various types of learners she may have in the classroom.
"Even though you may not be a straight-A student, if you're C and you're doing your best, I'm good with that. Not everybody's going to be your traditional high letter-grade student, especially now," Vierthaler said. "Everybody's going to be different because not everybody is the same, and if you did your best that's all you can do."
Preparing her students for the next stages of life can be tough, Vierthaler said, as they are so young, but she hopes she has encouraged them to be more empathetic, laid back and able to face whatever challenges may come at them.
Stepping away now, for Vierthaler, was another decision that revolved around family. With a daughter and two granddaughters three hours away in southwestern Kansas, making time for visits during the school year could be difficult — not to mention the hectic atmosphere that comes with that.
"I've never not known August 1 to June 1 as chaos," Vierthaler said. "My girls don't know me without the stress."
The hardest part of entering retirement is leaving "her kids" and school family behind, as it has grown over the years. On her last day, Vierthaler was visited by one parent and two of her children — all three of whom were former students of hers. Having that kind of investment in students and their families is something she said she will miss.
"My first class, I was 22 and they were 12. Those kids were only 10 years younger than I, and I know where all of them are and what they're doing — some of them have grandkids," Vierthaler said. "I will miss that because after this year, this is the last class that I'll get to follow through. The rest of those kids won't be my kids."
While it is tough to leave the classroom environment that has become so ingrained in Vierthaler, she is looking forward to spending time in her retirement with some other kids near and dear to her heart — her granddaughters.