Mark Munger plants roots in Aspen’s education scene
Aspen Middle School teacher will retire after four decades in the field
Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series on Aspen School District’s retiring teachers. New features will run every Friday in The Aspen Times through the month of June.
You could quantify Mark Munger’s teaching career by the years he’s spent in the field (41) or the years he’s spent at Aspen School District (27) or by the hundreds and hundreds of fifth- and sixth-grade students he’s taught at the Aspen Community School and Aspen Middle School in that time.
Or you could just start counting trees on Independence Pass: The outdoor education advocate and his students have planted at least 5,000 trees and native plants along the corridor during Munger’s time in Aspen, according to former Independence Pass Foundation director Mark Fuller.
Munger will retire from his sixth-grade teaching position at Aspen Middle School at the end of this school year, but he’s keeping his roots planted in the Roaring Fork Valley, where he plans to spend even more time outside. It isn’t easy parting with a four-decade career; Munger has said “one more year” for the past four or five laps around the sun, but the time had to come eventually.
“I certainly want to fish a lot more, hike a lot more, ski a lot more, do those things I love. I want to travel, I want to take some classes, I want to learn to paint. I’m going to take a music appreciation class, so I’m looking forward to that,” Munger said. “I’m looking forward to doing a lot of the things I love more and some of those things that have been on my bucket list that haven’t been able to be addressed while doing the busy teaching life.”
Not to say that he doesn’t also have a passion for the work he’s pursued over the past four decades in Aspen. Environmental education has long been an interest; same goes for working with kids and younger people. The middle school’s outdoor education program “second to none,” he said, and you could almost bet money that if he runs into a former student, they’ll mention their own fond memories of outdoor education.
“I love teaching, I love my job, and I love where I live,” Munger said. “I can’t imagine being in a much better place for the things I love to do.”
Seeing students grow and explore their curiosities is part of what he has loved about the job, he said. Plus, there’s the community of people he works with. As president of the Aspen Education Association, he was the bridge between teachers and administration while advocating for the needs of the staff that are a part of why he does what he does.
“I absolutely love my colleagues,” Munger said. “The camaraderie, the collegiality that I’ve experienced both at the community school and the middle school, I think all of those have kept me in the came for so long.”
It goes both ways, said fellow Aspen Middle School sixth-grade teacher Sarah After.
“He’s been a mentor to so many people, including me,” After said. “He’s definitely the person I go to when I am looking for advice on a situation. … He’s a thoughtful, kind and reflective person, so he’s a great one to go to when considering what to do in a situation.”
That thoughtfulness applies just as much to giving advice as it does to “providing meaningful experiences for students,” After said.
In addition to outdoor education, service learning and mentorship are core to his teaching philosophy. (The annual tree planting is one of a number of activities in service of that; he also collaborates with other middle school teachers on other projects, including work with the local nonprofit Pathfinders.)
“I think those three programs have been incredibly valuable for our students,” Munger said. He places a high value on keeping things fun, too.
“I think just trying to make learning fun and having a sense of humor in the classroom — I couldn’t do it if I couldn’t laugh, not to say that we’re always laughing.”
Munger aims to support social and emotional learning as well as academic learning at a time when his students are on the cusp of growing up from a little kid into a teenager and young adult. Part of the job is instilling confidence in students, whether they’re ready to believe it or not.
“I’ve always tried to let them know that they are extremely capable and that I have confidence that they can make a positive difference in the world and find their path,” he said.
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The Aspen School District’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year is shaping up stronger than the pandemic-bogged finances from last year, according to district Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe.“We’re getting our head above water and we’re coming up on shore,” Warhoe said in an interview last week.