When describing her 27 years as an elementary school teacher in Big Horn County, Lovell resident Sharla Zwemer is most enthusiastic about the thrill of seeing her students “grow and progress” and then witnessing their successes as adults.
In fact Zwemer, who retired from BHC School District No. 1 at the end of May, also enjoyed the delight of teaching the children of some former students. How many pupils did she have during her career?
“I can’t even imagine,” she said with a smile. “I mostly taught third grade,” she said, “but during the years I also had some combination classes with grades 2-3, 3-4 and 4-5 in one room” at various times.
Zwemer began teaching at the former Frannie-Deaver Elementary School and later at the consolidated Rocky Mountain Elementary School in Cowley.
She grew up in Lovell, as her father, Glenn Engelking, was superintendent of schools and a teacher there. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she noted, and as a high school student she gained experience by teaching a swing choir and was a lifeguard aide with the American Red Cross, eventually earning instructor certification.
As “a good sight reader” she began playing the piano expertly in fourth grade after beginning lessons in first grade and has played piano and organ since. She mostly plays at her home church, St. John’s Lutheran, and has at times played for several other Lovell churches when help is needed. She began giving piano lessons when she married her husband, Robert, and they’ll soon mark 48 years.
Initially she and he farmed, living in Frannie, raising sheep and mostly corn, but also alfalfa and malt barley. “I learned how to drive a combine,” she recalls.
Early in her career she went through radiation and chemotherapy because of cancer, and while she was recovering, Robert suffered a stroke, but she persevered to continue her career and to take care of her husband during her teacher education and while on the job. Robert is extremely complimentary of her accomplishments and caring, especially noting “her strong Christian faith and her strong dedication.” He also emphasized that during the years she devoted many extra hours to her students for preparation and other teaching responsibilities that she undertook.
Zwemer’s earning a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education was accomplished through two years at Northwest College in Powell under visiting professor programs and then two years at the University of Wyoming. She then was a student teacher in Powell for grades 2 and 4. “The summer I finished I was hired in School District No. 1 by Grant Sanders,” she said. His daughter, Karma, is principal at Rocky Mountain Elementary School. Zwemer earned her master’s degree in curriculum from Lesley College of Boston.
“I’ve always liked working with kids,” she said. Her father was an inspiration, but didn’t talk about teaching much, she said, “because the last thing he wanted to talk about when he came home from work” was education. She gives much credit to “some really good teachers with awesome influence” including Verle Punke and Lila Steed.
The teaching profession has changed through the years, she observed, stating, “There is so much paperwork now that sometimes you feel as though there’s no time to teach.” She also said that with the introduction of Ipads into classrooms it seems “a better profession for younger people.” The retirement decision was not easy, she added, but overall, “It was time.”
She and Robert plan to take some day trips in her retirement and she noted that, “He deserves some time now.” They have three children: Tessa Jasso, who was the District No. 1 music teacher and now lives in Powell, but who will be moving to Washington state and continuing as a teacher teaching English to Japanese people; Sharae Bischoff, a former OB nurse who now serves as a midwife in Powell; and Jolyn Belk, a family law attorney in Oklahoma. So part of their planning involves visits plus “following the grandkids through their sports and other activities.”
BY BOB RODRIGUEZ