Three Monticello High School teachers and one from the middle school joined a large swath of Pinewood teachers in retirement at the end of last school year. These teachers contributing their time and talents for a wide variety of good in the district throughout several decades – from literature to physical education, after-school coaching to science. Here’s a closer look at these four teachers and their careers in the Monticello district:
When Dan Berg joined Monticello’s special education program in 1978, Monticello’s adapted physical education program for special needs kids was in its infancy. Berg would go from Pinewood East and West, which housed all elementary students, to the junior/senior high school located in the current middle school to help all the district’s special needs students have a physical education experience. He initially went to school to become a traditional phys. ed. teacher, but after student teaching special needs students he knew he’d found his calling.
“I wanted to work with those kids and give them the opportunity to enjoy sports like the other kids have,” he said.
Now 2.5 staff members strong, Berg has been able to work with high school students exclusively on everything from the basics of phys. ed., such as stretching and basic skills to finding ways for his students to parallel the traditional phys. ed in ways that work for them.
“We have units in softball, football, basketball, archery and everything else … but we have to adapt the skills of the game so it’s appropriate for them and so they can participate successfully,” he said.
Career highlights for Berg include having some of his students compete in the International Special Olympics and watching students succeed in the adapted bowling league he helped to start nine years ago. The bowling team has won the state championship as a team and had individual kids win or place in state championships. Berg said he loved to see how bowling has become a hobby or a family activity for many of his players.
Berg also keeps busy in the school district outside of traditional school hours. Along with school board member Jim Lindberg, Berg has been running ECFE’s popular “Dad and Me” classes for 25 years running. And he also holds the unofficial district record for the person who has attended the most school board meetings he – began attending meetings in the early 1980s, then would do a write-up on the meeting that night and get it out to the teachers the next day so everyone was informed as to what was going on in the district. Berg said attending school board meetings is an activity he has come to enjoy, along with being part of teacher contract negotiations, which not many others can relate to.
“Most people scrunch up their noses and say ‘are you kidding?’ I don’t know, maybe I need to get a life or something,” Berg said with a laugh.
But at the same time, he can’t promise his days of board meeting attendance are over even though he’s officially off the hook for messenger duty. He says he might drop by from time to time, “just for fun.”
Laurie LaVelle spent 21 years of her teaching career as an English teacher in Monticello, working with grades 7-12 but mostly with sophomores, whom she calls “a delight.”
“They are challenging, but still fun and spunky,” she said of her tenth grade students.
The teaching bug bit LaVelle when she was still a high school student herself, when she took part in a high school program that allowed her to go into the elementary school and work with students. She tutored 5th graders in reading and enjoyed working with them, then her decision to teach solidified when she took a summer volunteer job working at a day camp for kids with special needs.
“It was the best job I ever had, even though I didn’t get paid,” LaVelle said with a laugh.
Some of LaVelle’s fondest teaching memories are reading her students’ creative writing pieces and seeing things come out that she hadn’t realized were inside of those kids, things that they didn’t get to express in everyday life but could come out in their written words. The much-adored Renaissance Festival also topped her list, which was a multi-course collaborative project that Monticello’s high school sophomores did for many years, but it has since gone by the wayside.
Though she said it might sound cliché, LaVelle said she has learned as much from her students as vice versa, and she feels the school’s environment is a positive one for teachers as well as students.
“I really feel the district helped to shape who I am,” she said.
With retirement now upon her, LaVelle said she feels like the possibilities are endless for how she will fill the next chapter of her life. Time with her husband, children and grandchildren will top the list, along with some traveling, but a central focus will continue to be on serving others, even if she’s not doing it in a classroom any longer.
“I think [retirement] will help me find new ways to serve others and grow as a person,” she said.
Dan Mielke spent 35 years in Monticello teaching and coaching, starting out as a middle and high school science teacher when both schools were still together in one building. When the schools were set to split, Mielke chose to move to the new middle school and focus on these students. Though there are pros and cons to each age group, Mielke said he appreciates the enthusiasm, energy and curiosity of middle school kids.
“To me, it’s motivating,” he said. “It’s infectious. Middle school kids keep me young at heart, I should say.”
As chemicals and drugs became more and more of a concern around the community and nation, school officials went to Mielke, asking if he could write curriculum for a health class with a chemical education component.
“My last 10 years teaching this particular health class has been very rewarding,” he said. “Health is the one academic subject you and I use every day. We get a chance to help some kids make better decisions.”
Mielke has led what he calls a ‘dual life’ for quite some time, spending his days in the classroom with his students while also managing a career in the business world as a commercial property developer in town. In retirement he will continue that career, along with continuing to help out with the girls’ basketball program. Throughout his school career, teaching and coaching have gone hand-in-hand. In Monticello, he was head coach of the high school girls’ basketball team for nine years, a football assistance coach, a head baseball coach for three years and a head softball coach for a year. He also had a successful coaching career as a basketball coach for Anoka-Ramsey Community College, including being named the National Coach of the Year in 1993-1994, the year his team won the National Championship.
“One thing I’ve always liked about education is that you have the opportunity on a daily basis to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “That’s a rewarding thing.”
Joyce Wallis has been teaching in Monticello since 1994, and she has run the gamut from teaching elementary students with emotional/behavioral disorders at Little Mountain to switching to the older students at the high school, helping teenagers with learning disabilities.
As a military wife, Wallis taught in several other states before coming to Minnesota. She previously taught traditional students, but while doing long-term subbing one summer in Minnesota a school psychologist told her she had a talent with special ed kids, suggesting she pursue it as a career. Wallis ended up taking this advice, going back for a master’s degree in special education.
She spent her time at the high school helping special needs students with their reading, writing and study skills. She works to get her highest-functioning students “mainstreamed” into a traditional class, achievements she counts as some of her best memories from her career. Wallis recounted one especially memorable student, a ninth grader who had yet to learn to read, with whom she stepped all the way back to phonics-level reading and worked with him for two years before he at last mastered the skill and became a voracious reader.
“He would try to read any novel he could in all his spare time,” she said. “All his life, he wanted to read a book … it is a really good feeling.”
Helping students to function better in their classes has been her favorite part of the job. She gets to see her students’ self-esteem rise as they learn to tackle challenges and prepare themselves to enter the workforce.
In her retirement, Wallis will be taking some classes for her own interest, picking up a few hobbies and doing some traveling.