By KATIE LEFEBVRE
For long-time teachers and staff in the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Sioux City, many things have changed over the years but the constant that remains is the presence of God.
When Winnifred Geelan-Potthoff started teaching Spanish at Kuemper Catholic School in Carroll 39 years ago, things were very different. She had just graduated from the University of Northern Iowa when she was hired in January 1976.
“When I arrived, there were approximately 1,200 students in grades 9-12 and 17 religious sisters and eight priests on the faculty,” she said. “Now there are around 300 students and no nuns or priests on the faculty full-time. We do have a deacon teaching and two retired priests who serve as chaplains. Lay people teach the theology classes and area priests come in to do our Masses.”
The long-time teacher added classroom instruction has evolved from using mimeograph machines to print papers, 16 mm film and overhead projectors to e-books, electronic assignments, document cameras and Promethean boards.
Geelan-Potthoff began teaching levels one, two and three in Spanish and is now teaching levels two, three and four. As the Spanish program grew, middle school and Spanish IV were added so another teacher was hired.
“I enjoy working with the students, their parents and the other faculty and staff,” she said. “I feel like Kuemper has a warm, welcoming atmosphere that creates a feeling of family. Also, the Catholic faith is a very integral part of the Spanish language and culture. I have the opportunity to include it in classroom instruction here at Kuemper.”
Karen Conlon has been teaching in Catholic schools for 36 years. She taught for six years at Emmetsburg Catholic School and has been the first grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Spencer for 30 years.
This native of northwest Iowa, graduated from Everly Community School and then from Briar Cliff College in Sioux City.
“I was excited when offered a job at a Catholic school,” said Conlon. “It was an answer to my prayers. It has been 36 years of being able to imitate God’s love.”
She enjoys teaching at Sacred Heart because it is “a gift from God.”
“God is an integral part of my teaching day,” explained Conlon. “We pray together each day. We attend Mass weekly. We make visits to the church to light candles and pray. I can share my faith and love of God through my Christian values.”
The many friendships she has made with the families throughout the years has also been a joy for Conlon.
“I feel that through technology we have become more connected with the parents of our students and the teachers,” said Conlon. “We can easily communicate through the weekly newsletters.”
Lisa Oberg, seventh and eighth grade teacher at Emmetsburg Catholic School, has been teaching the same grades for 33 years.
Although she is not a native of Emmetsburg, her dad grew up in Emmetsburg and she spent the first 15 years of her life visiting her grandparents once a week.
“When I was in high school, my family moved to Emmetsburg,” said Oberg. “After living away during college and first years of marriage, my husband and I returned to Emmetsburg and have lived here for 33 years. I discovered that working in a school that shared the same faith and values was a great career choice.”
When she started teaching at Emmetsburg Catholic, students sat in straight rows, had a textbook for every class and writing essays involved pen and paper.
“Now my students sit in teams at round tables, have a laptop and understand the importance of taking an active collaborative role in learning and problem solving,” said Oberg. “What hasn’t changed is the ever prevailing presence of God in our lives.”
She said at Emmetsburg Catholic they celebrate their successes and achievements as well as grief and upsets.
“We wrap our day in prayer and that makes the day start and end on the right note,” said Oberg. “The students take up the challenge to be the best they can be. They’re always ready to help others in need. I especially appreciate the staff and parents at Emmetsburg Catholic because they make it a priority to work together for the good of the students.”
Vicki Heeren, kindergarten teacher, has been teaching at St. Catherine-St. Mary’s in Remsen/Oyens for 29 years. When she started at the school, she taught seventh and eighth grade for one year. Then she taught fifth grade for nine years. She has been teaching kindergarten since the kindergarten program started at St. Catherine-St. Mary’s in 1996.
Heeren grew up in Valley, Neb., and after she and her husband were married in 1986, they moved to rural Le Mars.
“I did not have the opportunity to attend a Catholic school, but quickly saw the advantages when I started teaching at St. Catherine-St. Mary’s,” said Heeran. “My husband, Doug, and I elected to send our daughters to St. Catherine-St. Mary’s, even though we live out of the Remsen district.”
She explained through a series of events “God led me to St. Catherine-St. Mary’s School” for her first teaching “job.” However, she has since been led to believe that “my ‘vocation’ is here at St. Catherine-St. Mary’s. I love the students I teach and the families that make up this community.”
Over the years, Heeran said technology has been an asset and a challenge.
“I love using the Smartboard to teach, but continue to believe in teaching each individual child where they are in their learning process,” she said. “My goal is to get students to love learning so they will challenge themselves. Technology helps make this progression easier, but can also create complications. Creating a balance is an ongoing process for today’s teacher.”
At this point in her life, Heeran said she wouldn’t change her career for “any salary in the world. Not many people can say they love what they do. But I can.”
Janelle Clausen has been the secretary at Danbury Catholic School since August 1987 – 27 years. She splits her time between the school and St. Mary Parish. She works at the school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at the parish office on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
On the days she is at the school, Clausen does early busy duty for the students. She makes copies for the classrooms and helps the students with Band-aids and ice packs if they have been hurt.
“In general, whatever the students’ needs are, I am there for them,” said Clausen. “I really like it here. I enjoy being around the students, staff and faculty and meeting and greeting new people and parents. I also enjoy the fundraisers we hold at Danbury Catholic, which I am involved in. Working in a Catholic school, I feel closer to God.”
She and her husband, Mark, have two boys, Jared and Nathan, who attended Danbury Catholic.
“I felt at the time (when the boys were in school) I needed to be close to home,” said Clausen. “We never considered somewhere other than the Catholic school to send our children.”
Through her years at Danbury Catholic, she has seen a lot of changes. When she first started, Clausen was typing on a typewriter and everything was documented by paper. Now she uses a computer and most items are stored on the computer.