Sitting in a couple of first-grade desks in a classroom at Immanuel Lutheran School in Washington a couple of weeks ago, longtime teachers Jolene Schultz and Ruth Marschel seem more like sisters than colleagues as they laughed and reminisced about their decades of teaching.
The women, both of whom just retired after 49 years each, began their careers together, graduating in the same class from Concordia University in Seward, Neb., and then accepting teaching jobs in Nebraska towns just a short drive from each other.
“She was in Hastings, and I was in a little town named Blue Hill,” said Marschel.
Attending circuit meetings where pastors and teachers from all of the Lutheran schools in the area got together, the women realized they were close enough to do things together — like drive to the city to go to the grocery store.
“I didn’t want to go by myself, so I called her up,” said Marschel. “I didn’t tell her I’d never driven in a big city before. So we had those adventures together.”
A couple of years later, after Schultz had accepted a job teaching at Immanuel Lutheran in Washington, and Marschel was teaching at St. John’s Lutheran in Ellisville, Immanuel had an opening for a third- and fourth-grade teacher and the principal asked Schultz if she knew anyone who would be interested.
“I said, ‘You know, I think I do,’ ” recalled Schultz.
Back then, Immanuel’s staff was very small, just five teachers. The board of education called Marschel, she came out for an interview and “just like that,” she had a contract.
The two women shared an apartment on East Fifth Street for six years.
“Then she got married, and I got a cat,” Schultz said with a laugh.
The women agreed there’s a bond between them that they don’t share with the other teachers.
“First of all, we’re the oldest ones,” Schultz joked.
“And so many of them have different perspectives on how to do things,” added Marschel.
But beyond that the two women have been through a lot together.
“Not just here, but in our personal lives too,” Schultz said.
Both Schultz and Marschel were the only two teachers who still had pianos in their classrooms. They came from an era when that was the standard.
“It used to be that if you were going to be a Lutheran teacher, you had to know how to play the piano, because it was used in the classroom,” Marschel said.
Schultz said she used her piano several times a week, mostly for religion class, when the students would sing songs about the Old Testament, the New Testament and all 12 disciples.
Over the years, Schultz and Marschel have watched other Immanuel Lutheran teachers retire, and both felt they would know when it was their time. They also couldn’t imagine one retiring before the other.
“We have said many times, one of us couldn’t go without the other,” said Schultz. “One of us couldn’t go and leave the other one here.”
“But I never expected this,” Marschel remarked.
In fact, the women separately made their decisions to retire, neither consulting the other.
“I had kept telling (Ruth) for some time now, ‘We need to go one more year,’ because ‘50’ would look good on our tombstones,” joked Schultz.
“Then last summer, I kinda started thinking, ‘Maybe this is the last year.’ But I didn’t say anything to anybody. No one knew.”
As the school year started Schultz felt like the timing was right, so over Thanksgiving break she told her sister. Then she knew the next person she had to tell was Marschel.
“So I went over and said, ‘This is what I’m doing . . . but that doesn’t mean because I’m retiring, you have to,’ ” said Schultz. “To me it was the Lord working . . . because I have wondered many times, how will I know when is the right time to do this? But I have no doubts. I am 100 percent sure.”
Marschel said she laughed when Schultz told her the news.
“That’s what I was going to tell you,” she remarked.
Marschel, who’d had a lot of life changes in recent years with the passing of both her mother and her husband, having two cataract surgeries and shingles, said she had been praying about what to do for some time. Then while she was out for a walk one day, she made her decision.
“I wondered what it would sound like to say it out loud: ‘I’m going to retire at the end of this year.’ So I said it, and boy, it felt good,” Marschel recalled.
When Schultz said she was going to retire first, Marschel laughed because she expected Schultz to tease her about retiring before their 50-year milestone.
“I thought maybe she’d call me a wimp or something like that,” said Marschel.
For much of their careers, Schultz and Marschel have taught a single grade — Schultz, first grade, and Marschel, fourth. But early on, they both taught double grades, even triple grades some years.
Schultz had kindergarten and first grade in one classroom, and sometimes second; and Marschel had third and fourth grade in a room, and sometimes fifth grade.
First grade is a rewarding class to teach because you can really see the growth from the start of the year to the finish, said Schultz.
“In that nine-month period, it never ceases to amaze me after all these years, what they can learn,” she commented.
“When they first come in some of them can read, but some of them can’t. Just the independence they gain, being able to do so much on their own.”
By the time they get to the fourth grade, their different learning methods are more distinct, said Marschel.
“That’s what’s kept me in the classroom so long,” she said. “Those different minds, and how they look at things.
“That’s what I’m going to miss —getting to know their minds and how they work,” said Marschel.
Neither Schultz nor Marschel have any idea how many students they’ve taught over the last 49 years, but they guessed around 1,000 each. Those years when they had double and triple classes in a room were bigger numbers.
“The funniest year was when (the principal) asked, ‘What’s your maximum?’ ” recalled Marschel. “I thought it was a joke. I said, ‘36,’ so then I could have six rows of six. There were 37 who applied, so someone was turned away.
“But that’s the most I’ve had,” she said. “When I had double grades, it was always around 30.”
Now that school is out for the summer, the feeling of being retired may not sink in until later this summer, when Schultz and Marschel won’t have to be getting their classrooms ready.
Schultz already knows what she’ll miss the most come fall.
“There’s just always something fresh and new every day,” she said. “There’s just that freshness and openness, that honesty about kids this age.
“They still think you know everything. You’re right up there with God for them. They’ve got you up on a pedestal.”
Of all the years they taught together, one that sticks out for both women is the 1985-’86 school year, when Schultz and Marschel served as co-principals of Immanuel Lutheran School.
There had been a split in the church the previous school year, and all of the other teachers had quit.
“We were the only ones who stayed, and there was no principal, so they came to us,” said Schultz.
“We had a school secretary who they had added a few years earlier, and she was good, efficient, and without her, we’d have never made it,” she said. “Because she’d come and remind us what needed to be done.”
Schultz handled the writing aspects of the job, like the school newsletter, and Marschel handled all of the public speaking engagements.
“We did that plus teaching our own classes,” Schultz pointed out.
For Marschel, who had considered going on to get an administrator’s degree, the experience was all she needed to know that it wasn’t right for her.
Both Schultz and Marschel agree that for now they are most looking forward to not having any plans.
“I have planned my life for 49 years, so my plan is just to not plan for a while,” said Schultz. “Then when I’m tired of that and getting bored, then I’ll sit down and plan some things.
“A couple of ladies we know who are retired told us to go downtown at 10 o’clock in the morning,” Schultz commented. “You’ll meet people you never knew existed, because when are we ever downtown at that time.
“I told the people at the bank I was going to start coming in during the week at 10 a.m. just to see what’s going on.”
“After that we’ll see what God has in mind for me,” she said. “I’m sure He’s going to present something because as soon as word got out that we were retiring, we were asked to run for president of the zone LWML — Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.
“I had told myself I’m taking a year off, but it was really hard to stick to that,” said Marschel.
Both women have plenty of hobbies to keep them busy.
We both play the organ at church, and Schultz also is in the hand-bell choir. They both sing in the adult choir and Civic Chorus, and they both bowl on Tuesday nights.
Changes in Education
There have been many changes in education in the more than four decades that Schultz and Marschel were teaching. One of the first things that came to mind for them was the number of breaks they used to get in the beginning — zero!
“That’s why teachers had strong bladders,” Schultz remarked.
In terms of teaching, though, there have been great strides in the content.
“For one thing, I used to get kids where first grade was their first experience with school,” said Schultz. “Now most have been to preschool and everyone has had kindergarten, so when I get them now, they can already read to some extent, and they’re used to coming full days, not half-days.
“Kindergarten is more of an academic experience than what was more social in the past to learn your name and colors and numbers,” Schultz noted. “The demands on the students are greater. They need to learn more at lower grades than in decades past.”
Marschel said in fourth grade, students are learning some things their grandparents didn’t have until high school, particularly in math. On Grandparents Day she would have her students do some examples on the board, and the grandparents were always amazed, said Marschel.
On the other hand, the educators said they also have seen a drastic change in the students’ ability to do things for themselves.
“They are more dependent on their parents to do things than in generations past,” said Schultz. “They aren’t as good at problem-solving because they haven’t done it as much.
“In the old days, young kids were more independent. They learned to do more for themselves,” she said.
One of the most rewarding things the women have seen in all their years of education has been second- and third-generation students.
“When you’ve been here for so long, you see former students as adults and with careers they’ve chosen or being stay-at-home mothers . . . and to me, the biggest honor is when a former student sent their children to me,” said Marschel.
“They know what kind of person you are. You can’t hide it from your students.”