By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
After 32 happy years teaching music at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, Barb Vanek decided the time was right to retire last month.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Vanek spent her childhood on a farm near the town of Wahoo. She says the most interesting thing about her education is that she attended a one-room schoolhouse near the farm. All grades and subjects K through 8 were taught by one teacher who spent all day with the students, including lunch and recess.
Vanek attended the University of Nebraska, where she met her husband, Mike. The couple moved to Michigan, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Michigan. The Ann Arbor residents have a daughter and son, both of whom are graduates of King Elementary and the University of Michigan.
After beginning her teaching career in Ypsilanti for one year, Vanek moved to King Elementary, where she taught for 32 years until she retired last month.
Her favorite hobby is gardening, which she has enjoyed since childhood.
Principal Mary Cooper says that a highlight of each of her seven years at King has been International Night.
“Barb did a beautiful job of bringing children together through music,” Cooper says. “I wish her the very best in retirement as she spends more time with her family and in her garden.”
What prompted you to retire last month?
I had been thinking about retirement for the past two years, and unfortunately, the COVID pandemic is what led to my decision to retire at this time. I had hoped to teach for at least one more year, but could not see myself teaching remotely as is now the current situation. I feel grateful for my career, and it just seemed like a natural time for me to leave.
What is your proudest moment at school?
I have many, many proud moments, but the moments that I think I will remember the most are our annual Martin Luther King celebrations. I always felt a tremendous amount of pride watching and listening to each grade level proudly singing for the late Dr. King.
What made a good day at school?
There is nothing more beautiful than children singing. Add in lots of smiles and some hugs, and every day was a good day. Any day that I heard the students singing our songs on the playground, at lunch, or in our neighborhood was an exceptional day.
How do you think students will remember you and your class?
I hope that they will remember me as someone who was kind to them and helped them to work at their personal best, and also as someone who made learning fun.
How did you remember all of your students’ names?
When you’ve taught in a building as long as I had, it is not so difficult to remember all of the students’ names. Going into a new year, I would always know all of the kids from the previous years, so the only new names I had to learn were the Kindergarteners’.
If you could change anything about your career, what would it be?
Honestly, there is nothing I would change about my career. I was lucky enough to land at King School where I have been very, very happy.
If you hadn’t taught music, what do you think you would have done career-wise?
If I hadn’t become a teacher, I think I would have gone into nursing. It’s in my nature to care for and nurture other people, and I think it would have been an excellent second choice.
What did you like most about teaching at King?
The thing I liked most about teaching at King was interacting with the kids. King is a very multi-cultural building, and I really enjoyed hearing their differing perspectives and learning about their cultures. The kids were always so wonderful. They were smart, well behaved, and eager to learn.
Q: How did the job change in 32 years?
One of the biggest changes in my job has been the growth of technology in schools. When I started, there were no computers, iPads, or cellphones. If I wanted to make a call, I had to go down to use the office phone. We did not have classroom phones at that time. Also, instead of making copies, we made something called mimeographs. I played vinyl records to go with our songs, rather than CDs. We had film strips instead of videotapes, then DVDs, and now streaming is used. There was no such thing as YouTube or the internet.
How did the students change?
When I started at King, we didn’t have anywhere near the diversity we have now. Students also come to school with a lot of knowledge. Many kindergarteners these days come to school already reading.
And finally, how did you change?
Teaching at King introduced me to people of all races and cultures. I had grown up on a farm in Nebraska where all my neighbors and classmates were of my own race. I have come to value diversity, where before, I hardly knew what it was. As the years went by in my teaching career, I came to value my students more and more. I fell in love with them. I think that I became more nurturing as time went on and I learned how to have fun with the kids.
What have you been up to during your retirement so far?
So far, I have spent many hours in my garden, read several books, taken many long walks with my husband, and visited our two adult children in Chicago. I have also been making new friends.
Any long-time plans?
My husband and I plan to travel extensively, once COVID is over. We would also like to be more involved in managing the farmland we own in Nebraska. I also plan to volunteer at King and maybe do some substitute teaching.
What do you miss most so far?
I miss the kids.
What don’t you miss?
I am not a morning person, so I don’t miss having to wake up early to get ready for work. I like being able to sleep in and set my own hours.
Any advice for a young music teacher?
My advice is to get to know the students on a personal level. Take the time to listen to them, and what they want to tell you about themselves or about their life. The most important thing in teaching, I believe, is having a personal relationship with as many of your students as possible. Studies have shown that the relationship between student and teacher is one of the most important variables when it comes to kids and their learning.