Surrounded by his students, Meridian Elementary second grade teacher Mike Stiffler holds the cake given to him during a retirement party held in his honor in the school cafeteria on Wednesday. Stiffler is retiring after teaching 33 years in the same classroom in which he was a second grader.
There's always sadness at the end of each school year as students and teachers say good-bye for the summer. But Meridian Elementary second grade teacher Mike Stiffler said good-bye to his class of students, his co-workers and the classroom he's taught in for 33 years for the last time.
"As a child, I watched this school being built from the playground outside. When it opened the first year, I was a second grader in the same classroom I've taught in for the last 33 years," Stiffler said, then smiled. "I guess you could say it took me a while to get out of the second grade."
Stiffler halfheartedly accepted a second grade teaching position from Principal Maury Modesitt right after graduating from Indiana State University.
"It was really unusual in 1973 for a man to be an elementary teacher, but (Modesitt said) if I took the position I'd get to teach a class in a higher grade at a later time," he said. "I'm still waiting."
Not much older than his students, Stiffler unexpectedly found himself learning more from second graders than he ever had from textbooks in college.
"It has been a humbling experience," he said of his teaching career. "The students have all been so loving and kind. They have taught me understanding, patience. They taught me how to be a better person, a better man."
Stiffler said there needs to be more male teachers throughout the education system, but especially at the elementary level.
"These young people need strong positive role models," he said. "For many students, I am the only male role model in their lives. I get called "Dad" a lot by students, and that's fine with me. A lot of them need a hug first before I can begin teaching."
Stiffler's past and present students returned the hugs with a surprise retirement party in the cafeteria Wednesday afternoon.
Cheryl Snow helped organize the event because her granddaughter, MaKenzie Snow, was a student in Stiffler's class this past year.
"Mr. Stiffler's the first person outside of family that many students learn to trust," she said. "He picks them up, encourages them to do and be their best every day. He makes his students excited about coming to school. MaKenzie is excited every day to see Mr. Stiffler."
Several past students were also at the party to say good-bye to their favorite teacher.
"He's everybody's favorite teacher. I know he's mine," Shannon Craig-Orman said. "He's the one teacher that I always come back to as being the source of my encouragement to become whatever I wanted to be in this life."
She credits Stiffler for her desire to return to college to further her education.
"Mr. Stiffler never pointed out the negative to a student. He always celebrated your achievement no matter how big or small," she said. "He has touched so many lives with his words and notes of encouragement over the years. I was in his class, my nephew was in his class three years ago and now my daughter Zoe is in his class. She's going to miss him so much. He is such an amazing man. You know, he still looks exactly like he did when I was in second grade. He's like Dick Clark, he never ages."
Stiffler credits his students for his ability to stay young.
"They kept me young," he said. "Without them. I wouldn't have been able to last this long."
Glad to be able to celebrate with her favorite teacher, Andrea Baysinger said her fondest memories of Stiffler were made possible because her mother, Susan Howard, works at the school.
"Because mom works here, I got to stay after class and help," she said. "I cleaned erasers and the chalkboard every day while I talked with Mr. Stiffler. I won't forget those times."
Stiffler has touched three generations of the Howard family over the years.
"He worked with my mother. My brother and I were in his class and now my children have been in his class," she said. "It's hard to see him leave."
When presented with several appreciation gifts, Stiffler was unable to read a book of thank you notes and pictures from the children in his class. He told his students that "one day" they would understand why he couldn't read this one book out loud to them.
With time on his hands to spend with his grandson, do a little gardening and work at a local sandwich shop, Stiffler doesn't have any grand plans for his future.
But he does see greatness in the eyes of his students.
"The future is unbelievable for them. It will be unlike anything we now know. They can be anything they want to be," he said. "When I look at them, I see the next doctors, lawyers, scientists and leaders of our future."
After each student takes a moment to say why he was so important to them during their year in his class, Stiffler's students waited for their turns to hug him and say good-bye.
"There are times, like today, when I second guess myself, my decision," he said. Overwhelmed, Stiffler struggled with his emotions. "I guess I really am retiring."