The greatest teachers are the ones whose words of encouragement echo in our head decades after we leave their classrooms. The teachers remembered best are those who inspired us, gave us that much-needed push, and picked us up when we fell. Overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic unimaginably altered the lives of educators, parents, and students, but those most drastically affected by the change in teacher-student relationship were our teachers. Those in the Bainbridge, North Kitsap, Central Kitsap, South Kitsap and Bremerton School Districts deserve our sincere appreciation and heartfelt gratitude for a job well done in the face of unprecedented uncertainty.
Traditionally, the Central Kitsap School District honors a “Teacher of the Year,” however, due to Covid-19, they will not do so this year. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to share my thoughts about one extraordinary teacher, Denyse Hemmersbach.
Last week, she packed up her 5th grade classroom and stepped out of Emerald Heights Elementary School for the last time. After 45 years spent teaching—38 in the Central Kitsap School District—she is retiring.
Mrs. Hemmersbach has continually gone above and beyond the call of duty while teaching my oldest son over the last two years. She often came in early or stayed late to work with children in need of extra assistance. On a couple of Saturdays this year, I met her at school to pick up “forgotten” assignments or other supplies so my son could complete them on time. Though there are moments I wish Mrs. H had been a little harder on my son, in reality, her persistent encouragement gave him a solid foundation to enter middle school next year.
Denyse Hemmersbach likely honed her persistence from a young age having grown up on a farm in Iowa which produced soybeans, corn, and alfalfa. Attending the first grade in a one-room schoolhouse, before Iowa phased them out, likely strengthened her educational resolve. After graduating from Maquoketa High School, she attended Clarke College, graduating in 1976.
She began her teaching career at the Wyoming Secondary School in Miles, Iowa teaching music to junior high and high schoolers. True to her tenacious nature, she taught 7th grade music in a bus barn without heat during the frigid midwestern winters, which is no small feat. After 4 years in Iowa, she moved to Washington State and taught at Clear Creek Elementary and then Brownsville over the next 6 years.
She met her besotted husband Miles during a 2-year hiatus spent on Guam teaching music to middle schoolers. Together, they returned to Bremerton where she has remained for nearly four decades. According to her husband, Mrs. H became a teacher because she wanted to share her love of music with children. While writing this piece, I realized that Mrs. Hemmersbach was teaching in the CK School District back when I graduated from Olympic High School in 1991, nearly a lifetime ago.
Over the years, Mrs. Hemmersbach taught all four of Jill Schweitzers’ children. Jill shared that Mrs. H “loves her kids, sees the best in them and only wants the best for each one.” She has a way of pulling the best out of her students, whether they are cooperative or recalcitrant. And more importantly, she loves working with children and never seems to find it tedious or monotonous.
As the pandemic descended upon us, Mrs. H never really stopped teaching. She swiftly embraced technology to support her students from the get-go. Once the district provided more direction, Mrs. H held weekly Google Meets to stay in touch with her kids. In addition, she held “office hours” for those wishing to work with her individually, a practice reminiscent of students taking college classes.
On top of all that, Mrs. H voluntarily took on 6 additional students working ahead in math, including my second oldest son, when their teacher went out on maternity leave. I feel privileged to have had two children taught by her even if for just a few short months.
At the final class Google Meet, Mrs. Hemmersbach read her 5th graders a story titled Everybody Needs a Rock. If you haven’t read it, you probably should. The underlying premise of the tale is that everyone needs something solid to hold on to during challenging times in their lives. As the story came to a close, her voice cracked when she said, “I cannot imagine any better class on which to end my career.” She was crying. Listening from the kitchen, I admit to shedding some tears as well.
Teachers like Mrs. Hemmersbach impact children for a lifetime and are unlikely to be forgotten. Before signing off for the last time, Mrs. H told her students that she would miss them, had high expectations for them in the future, and would see them at their senior celebration. There is little doubt she has inspired countless numbers of students to reach for the stars and many of us lucky enough to have her teach our children wish her a happy and fulfilling retirement.