One of the longest-serving members of the Waterloo School District has had her final day of school.
Zahnow Elementary School Principal Mary Gardner is retiring June 30, which will mark the end of a 34-year career in education, all of which was in Waterloo.
“You might as well go out and have the opportunity to enjoy (yourself),” Gardner said of why she is retiring. “At 56, my hope is there’s a lot for me to do.”
Gardner first came to the Waterloo School District in 1987, right after she obtained her college degree.
A central Illinois native, she was simply applying to teaching positions and found the one here.
“When I came to Waterloo, it was a very small school district with a two-lane highway,” Gardner recalled. “I actually didn’t know where it was located. It was just on the job list. When I applied, I had to pull out an actual map and find where it was.”
That was not going to be the case for long, as Gardner – who was hired as a fifth grade language arts teacher – would soon learn.
“It was probably the beginning of growth in Waterloo, so they were adding another section,” she noted.
After her first year, Gardner moved on to teaching language arts and reading at the sixth and seventh grade levels in the subsequent two years.
She also started teaching physical education and health at Waterloo Junior High School.
When the middle school, now known as Rogers Elementary, was built, Gardner moved back to teaching health, physical education and language arts to sixth graders there.
Then, after Gardner Elementary was constructed, she returned to WJHS as a part-time assistant principal who also taught part-time. She eventually became the full-time assistant principal, remaining at the school for a five-year stint.
Finally, in 2005, she became principal of Zahnow and has remained in that role for the last 16 years, meaning she has worked in every building except the high school.
“The energy of little kids is just different than the energy of junior high kids,” Gardner said. “I love junior high kids very much. That’s why I was teaching that, but I guess I was ready for a change.”
In addition to her teaching and administrative positions, Gardner has also helped out in athletics, serving as assistant coach for the high school softball and volleyball teams, coaching junior high volleyball and starting the high school girls basketball program.
“I love sports. I played volleyball, basketball and golf in high school. I played volleyball and basketball in college, D-III,” she said. “When you coach, you get to know kids and build a different kind of relationship than you do in a school building.”
Through all her years in all her roles, Gardner said there has been plenty of highs and lows.
In the former category, she said she looks back fondly on when she took over at Zahnow with goals of making the education more personable and personalized.
“(I wanted to make sure) every child was given the instruction that they needed and the attention that they needed. Everything was out of a textbook when I came here,” she said. “We all worked to change that. So now, that’s how we operate. The teachers are very positive. We look more toward positive reinforcement and positive praise.”
Gardner said successes like that would not have been possible without her fellow faculty members.
“I will always feel honored to have worked with this group of people at Zahnow Elementary and in the district. They’re just amazing at what they do,” she said.
Another key to her and the district’s success has been the administrators, as Gardner said she has had excellent mentors like Ed Settles, Ed Gardner and Jim Helton.
“I love my administrative team. We are very lucky in Waterloo to have a group of administrators that are a team, because that isn’t everywhere,” she stressed.
When it comes to the lows, Gardner said a specific instance does not stand out, but a type of situation does.
“Parents and student tragedies were the lowest of lows – having to deal with students who had passed away, students who had family who were sick or died tragically,” she shared.
But working with colleagues and students made the bad times worth it.
“Working with kids is a love of mine,” Gardner shared. “Not only did I serve as principal, I worked with groups of kids, I layered it into my schedule. I would have intervention groups. I would work with kids who were struggling.”
As her last day approaches, Gardner said she is feeling anxious about her next chapter.
“For 51 years, since I was 5 years old, I have always been in a school building,” she said. “I’m a little anxious because it’s an unknown, but I’m excited. I guess I’m going to have to reinvent myself and figure out what I’m going to do.”
Gardner said she’s not sure what she will do in retirement, but she expects, once she has taken some time for herself, that she will return to the Waterloo School District as a substitute teacher.
That is just more evidence of how much Gardner loved her career.
“I enjoyed what I did. I never thought of it as a job,” she said. “I enjoyed coming to work every day. The experiences that I’ve had with students, staff and parents, I wouldn’t give any of it up.
“I feel blessed and honored to have been able to be in Waterloo, in this community.”