Rosalee Sternhagen

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This quote by Henry Adams sums up the impact that Rosalee Sternhagen has had on many students in her extended teaching career. As Jean Janssen, a previous student, explained, “She is and was then also a true inspiration to many.”

Sternhagen was born in Avon, SD, her mother a teacher. Though she didn’t necessarily opt for the teaching profession at first, she knew that she didn’t want to be in the secretarial or nursing field. Because of limited occupational options at that time, she decided she would give teaching a try. It appears that she found her calling because she spent many years in the profession and positively impacted many lives, which she still hears about to this day.

Sternhagen obtained her two-year teaching degree from Springfield, SD by taking classes during the summer. She started teaching at age eighteen and recalls her first year of teaching in a country school, when she had an 8th grade, fourteen-year old boy in her class.

“That was quite interesting,” she laughed. She was later able to obtain her four-year teaching degree from the University of South Dakota, by attending classes in the evenings and during summers all while raising three young children at home.

Her early start on teaching allowed her to get in many years before retiring. She taught full-time for a total of fifty-seven years, her first twelve years in a country school followed by thirty-five years in a public school. She was then a substitute teacher for an additional ten years, her entire teaching tenure with the Avon, SD school district. She closed her school books in 2000 and retired.

When Sternhagen wasn’t teaching children, she was a nurse at home for two of her children. Her first-born daughter had an incurable liver disease and needed a transplant. Sadly, this took place before liver transplants were discovered. Her second-born son was in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy. Fortunately, their third son did not have health problems. During our interview, she proudly showed me a picture of her handsome grandsons’ from her youngest son’s family.

She didn’t have to travel far to go to work, she lived right across the street from the school. She laughed, “It was pretty handy.” She recalled always having children at her house.

During her teaching tenure at the country school, she was the only teacher at that time and taught all eight grades. She explained class sizes would range from one to two students up to seven. She taught all basic courses, and even added impromptu courses. She incorporated her musical talent into the curriculum, playing the piano and teaching the children songs. They also learned foreign languages, regularly listening to a Spanish and a German radio program.

She recalled when she and her class once saw a weather balloon and knowing how rare it was to see one, she took them on a spontaneous road trip. She loaded her seven students in her car and drove several miles to locate the balloon, ending up in Dante, SD. A former student of hers still recalls the road trip and enjoyed the learning experience.

The Christmas programs at the country school are a favorite memory for Sternhagen. “It was quite a project,” she reflected with a grin. She would coordinate a program to include six or seven children, from a young child to a teenager. There were bench seats set up for the parents and family to watch the program.

During her public-school teaching career, she taught English and History courses for 5th & 6th graders. She explained how she and her team teacher would switch classes and courses, Sternhagen teaching the 5th graders in the mornings and 6th graders in the afternoons.

Sternhagen’s former student Janssen recalled the teacher out in the softball field with the kids at recess, standing on the pitching mound lobbing balls for the children. When I mentioned it to Sternhagen, she remembered it well and beamed. “They didn’t argue or fight,” she said. “They just liked it if the teacher played.”

She left a lasting impression on many children, still receiving cards and letters from former students to this day.

“I have lots of nice letters from some of them. That is really nice,” she said. She told me about a former student of hers who is now a teacher, who tells her that she is striving to teach like Sternhagen did. “That’s one of my best things now, is when I get a letter from a student that I have taught, that is teaching, and they tell me that they are teaching the way that I did.”

What is her secret to such a long, successful teaching tenure impacting so many children? Patience. And love of children. She explained the success behind teaching simply. “You have to like working with kids. Some are challenging.”

Tom Culver, Avon School Superintendent, recalled Sternhagen fondly. “Rosalee was still teaching here my first couple years in Avon. She was always friendly and there with a smile. When we redid our track and started having a track meet again, she helped with distributing the medals for each school envelope. She also helped me with my football certificates for post season awards. She had terrific hand writing and I would take the certificates to her and she would write the kids names on the certificates. Even after she retired I would give her a call and walk the certificates over to her house. I enjoyed those times, since I would stay and visit with her and her son Dan. She is a great lady.”

Since Sternhagen retired from teaching, she has been volunteering at the museum in Avon. She writes a column for their newsletter each week, called “Do You Remember This?” She is also an avid reader and talented quilter, having made over 40 regular and queen size quilts and over 200 baby quilts.

In more than fifty years of teaching, it’s impossible to say how many lives Sternhagen impacted with her teaching. One thing is evident, this teacher’s influence will carry on for an eternity.