Next Friday, just a little past noon, students will exist Betsy Marl’s first grade classroom at Woodland Meadows Elementary School, climb on to the school bus and go home for summer break.
It will mark the end of an era at Saline Area Schools.
Betsy Marl is retiring after 40 years of teaching first grade in Saline. In her career, she’s taught somewhere between 800 and 1,000 first graders, providing young students the building blocks that were the foundation of their education.
“Betsy's contribution to the Saline community cannot be fully measured,” said Saline Area Schools Superintendent. “She has had a profoundly positive impact on the lives of countless students. Her dedication to her students, the Saline school district, and the Saline community is amazing and inspiring.”
You don’t teach first grade for 40 years unless you’re passionate about your job. And Betsy loves her job.
“I love the growth you see in first grade. I love how enthusiastic they are. I love how they listen to their teachers still,” Betsy laughs. “The academic and social growth you see in six and seven-year-olds is just phenomenal. Little people are so special. They’re so eager and have so much to tell you.”
But coming into this school year, Betsy knew it was time.
As her career went beyond 20 and 25 and 30 years, Betsy always felt she’d know when it was the right time. She knew before this year school began.
Teaching has always been work – and Betsy never shied away from work. But every year, it seems, there were more demands.
“Whether it was paper work or professional development requirements, it seems like there was more and more added each year,” she said.
Two of her long-time friends in the district, Ruth Bates and Charlene Stoddard, retired back in 2009-10.
“When they left, I was like, ‘Oh, oh. What’s this going to be like?’ But I knew I wasn’t ready to retire yet,” Betsy said. “Then they brought in this wonderful person (Rebekah Kargel) to the room next door. We just clicked. We’ve had so much fun working together.”
Kargel, who teaches first grade in the room beside Marl, said she learned so much just watching Betsy teach, interact with children and their parents and work with colleagues.
“Betsy is the most dedicated teacher I have ever known. If you’ve been a student in her class, you become like a member of her family,” Kargel said. “When you’re around her, you know she cares about you. Betsy Marl has loved her job for 40 years and will give it her all until the very last day of this school year.”
Betsy said she’s also learned from Kargel.
“She was quick to adopt some of the next generation classrooms and helped bring me a long in that area,” Betsy said.
Kargel said the veteran teacher was a willing learner.
“She has never lost her willingness to learn and try new things with her students. Her positive attitude is contagious and her love for all of her students is always easy to see,” Kargel said.
Betsy was born in Saline, the daughter of Norman and Lorena Scherdt. She grew up on Russell Street. As early as third grade, Betsy knew she wanted to be a teacher. She was inspired by her third grade teacher at Houghton Elementary, Dorothy Simpson.
“I idolized her,” Betsy said. “She was really caring and nurturing and she was a believer that everyone will succeed.”
As a child, she had a “nursery school” in her basement.
“I had a little school in my basement for the neighborhood kids. It was set up as a nursery school. We played and had fun and I was the teacher,” Betsy remembers.
She also did a lot of babysitting. As a senior in high school she was a cadet teacher at Jensen Elementary School in a third-grade classroom.
“I just knew that was it. That’s what I was going to do,” Betsy said.
She went to Eastern Michigan University and earned a degree in elementary education in three years. She then earned her master’s degree in her fourth year.
“At that time, Saline required a teacher to have a master’s degree in reading,” she said.
Having earned the requisite degrees, she excitedly went to the Saline Area Schools administration office seeking a job. She was sent to see Bob Kessel, principal of Houghton Elementary School. It did not go well.
“He was very upset at the time they sent me over to see him. He was not too welcoming.” Betsy remembers. “I went home crying that day, very discouraged.”
Kessel later reached out to Betsy and told her that while there were no permanent jobs, he had a long-term substitute position opening. Betsy accepted and filled in for Kim Van Hoek, who’d just gotten married, the next fall. Betsy would later work for Van Hoek for 14 years.
She worked for a year and half as a substitute before she was hired full-time as a first-grade teacher in 1977.
Betsy didn’t always plan a 40-year career in education. For many years, she thought she’d put in 20 years and then leave to do something else, perhaps start her own business. At one point, she considered purchasing the Hallmark store in Saline.
“My husband bought Saline Dodge and we built the new dealership. One family business was enough,” Betsy said.
For years, Saline teachers enjoyed nice raises and increases to benefits. But that all changed about a decade ago with wage rollbacks and concessions in health care and other benefits. Teachers like Betsy, however, didn’t roll back their effort or their performance.
Betsy is known to many families for the “extras” she puts in to the classroom. Each year, the district gives her about $100 for classroom supplies – down from $500 many years ago. You can imagine how far that doesn’t go. Especially with Betsy’s special projects.
Every year, the kids draw their face on a stickie note and sign their name. Betsy puts them all together and has a t-shirt made for each kid in the classroom.
Betsy puts even more time and work into a memory book for each student. The book shows each student on the first day of school, work they’ve done throughout the year, pictures from lessons and field trips and events.
When she first started printing the books, she used the printers and ink at Houghton school. That was nixed after a few years, but Betsy was allowed to bring in her own color printer and work at school. Then she was told she couldn’t hook the printer up to her school computer. So, Betsy went to Office Max to print. She’d take it back to her classroom, cut out the printed pieces, glue it on to construction paper and laminate each page.
“There have been years when I thought I wouldn’t do the books any more, but then some little person will tell me ‘I can’t wait to get a memory book like my brother,’” Betsy said. “So, OK. I’ll do it again. And really, I love to do it. I know the kids and parents love it. I’ve seen them out at graduation parties, so I know people hang on to them.”
Betsy leaves Saline Area Schools with more than 540 unused sick days. She rarely missed a day in front of the class.
“I’ve been very healthy, too. But I believe kids make the most progress when their teacher is in the classroom,” Betsy said.
She always works one day a weekend in the classroom and usually works until 5:30 p.m. each night.
“There’s always so much to do,” Betsy said.
And she’s not complaining, because she loves the work – most of it. She can live without the paperwork and assessments.
“You have to have the passion,” Betsy said.
Betsy has it, which is one reason she’s a little concerned about retiring.
“I love teaching. It’s not just my job, it’s my hobby. When I’m home doing something, it’s usually doing something for school,” Betsy said. “I love the school prep, especially the work with crafts.”
Betsy plans to help fellow first grade teacher Rebekah Kargel.
“I think there are plenty of teachers here who will take my help when needed,” Betsy said.
Betsy will be happy to give back. After all, she’s received so much support from parents, colleagues and friends over the years.
“I have 15 parents from this year’s class who regularly come in to help with reading. My friend Mary Laidlaw comes every Monday to listen to kids read,” Betsy said. “You get a lot of support in Saline.”
Now Betsy is thinking about what she’ll do with the next chapter of her life.
“I’m not sure. A lot of people have ideas for me. But I’m going to take it slow and choose what’s right,” Betsy said.
She’s already planning some time at Woodland Meadows. She plans to help in the cafeteria for at least the first month of school.
“Little people need lots of help in the cafeteria at the beginning of a school year,” Betsy said.
She plans to help in Kargel’s classroom with the things she likes to do.
Away from the school, Betsy plans to take retirement day by day. But she’s already finding things to do. She plans to help older people get to doctor’s appointments, for example.
And perhaps the Marls can expect a more elaborately decorated holiday season.
“I absolutely love holidays. So, I want to see if Christmas will be more stress free, or if I’ll have time to do something of the things I wanted to do, but just didn’t have time,” she said.
Many years ago, at Houghton Elementary School, Betsy was inspired to teach by Dorothy Simpson. Marl beams with pride when former first grade student Andrea Luurtsema, a recent Saline High School grad, works as a cadet in her classroom. She’s quick to mention that Bailey Elekonich, another former pupil now at Eastern Michigan University, is a student teacher in her classroom.
She estimates she’s taught more than 800 children over the years. To so many Saline Area Schools graduates, that’s how she’ll always be remembered.
When second graders walk by her classroom, they often stop by for a hug from Betsy or stop in to tell her a story about something happening in their life.
Similarly, adults who learned from Betsy 20, 30 and 40 years ago, always greet her with a smile.
“It’s the most wonderful response ever. They always hug their first-grade teacher,” Betsy said.
Of course, with 40 years experience, she’s had taught two generations of many Saline families. Betsy taught Jeff Nadig in first grade. She’s already taught one of Nadig’s children and is teaching a second one this year.
The parents who learned from Mrs. Marl want her to teach their children.
“To me, that’s the highest compliment. They valued the experience so much they want their children to have the same experience. It’s something I’m proud of,” Betsy said.