School’s out for teacher and ‘renaissance woman’
Longtime Aspen Middle School social studies teacher Wendy Larson will exchange her chalk for a baton next week.
Larson, 55, will retire from the Aspen School District after 27 years at AMS. She will, however, continue on as conductor of the Symphony in the Valley volunteer orchestra in Glenwood Springs.
Described by colleagues as a “renaissance woman,” Larson spent hours outside the classroom leading middle school outdoor education trips and directing class musicals.
Larson is among four people retiring from the district this year. Aspen Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jane Graber, art and environmental education teacher Wendy MacPhail and Aspen Middle School principal Phyllis Taylor will join her.
The Pueblo native started pursuing a career in education at a young age, playing “teacher” in elementary school and joining the Future Educators of America Club in high school. At the University of Northern Colorado, she earned degrees in music education and social studies.
An educator for three decades, Larson began teaching middle schoolers at her first teaching job in Illinois. While her love for Illinois faded quickly – she returned to Colorado three years later – her passion for middle school students remained.
“They have lots of energy,” she said. “The older kids can get apathetic or snarly.”
A connection to kids
Larson started at Aspen Middle School in 1976, working as a librarian for two years before diving into the task of making history exciting for preteens and adolescents in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“She continually works to be a better teacher,” said sixth-grade math and science teacher Mark Munger. Larson and Munger have collaborated as team teachers for 10 years, splitting a group of 42 or 43 students. “She does not rest on her laurels.”
Students recognize this enthusiasm as well.
“Instead of teaching us just straight up, she makes jokes about things,” said sixth-grade student J. Daly, describing how Larson once fell to the floor to illustrate the grammatical difference between “lie” and “lay.”
“She’s really one of the most energetic teachers,” added student Shelby Kerklo.
Munger described Larson as a compassionate educator who particularly motivates students who need extra help.
“She sees the kids that struggle,” Munger said. “She has a way of making a connection with the kids who school’s not their strength, either socially or academically.”
He said his teaching partner is someone who is always “going to bat for the student who has really fallen between the cracks.”
Retired Aspen High teacher Judy Wrigley said Larson is one of the few remaining veterans at Aspen Middle School. “She’s one of the ‘old-school’ teachers,” Wrigley said. “[The Aspen School District] is losing a multitalented, highly qualified woman.”
Known as a rigorous educator, Larson won the Aspen Education Foundation award last year. That $2,000 scholarship goes to three deserving teachers in the school district nominated by their peers, one from the elementary, the middle and the high schools.
“The thing we won’t miss about her is her homework,” student Katie Kelly said, pointing to the list of assignments on the board.
Beyond the classroom
Larson challenged her students in the outdoors as well.
One of the original leaders in Aspen Middle School’s outdoor education program, Larson was sent through an Outward Bound course and Emergency Medical Training during her first years with the district. Each year since, she has led either the eighth-grade wilderness trip near Marble, the seventh-grade rafting trip in Utah, or the sixth-grade cross-country skiing trip.
For the sixth-graders who skied along Shine Mountain off Vail Pass in early March, carrying 35-pound packs and covering as much as nine miles in one day, Larson proved herself tougher than the average student. (An avid mountaineer, Larson has climbed 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.)
“She’s like this big mountaineer so it was fun for her,” said Kelly, who explained that she enjoyed the hut trip but “it was just really tiring.”
Larson is also known for sharing her other passion with her students: music. With a piano in the classroom, Larson orchestrates a musical into her curriculum each year (this year’s performance was “Annie, Jr.,” a kid version of the Broadway classic). She has directed many classwide productions over the years as well, juggling nearly 100 seventh-graders onstage.
“Her [play] always has a professional touch,” principal Phyllis Taylor said.
Larson plays the cello with a trio for weddings during the summer and conducts the Symphony in the Valley year-round. She describes herself as a “professional musician on the side,” but hopes to devote more time to performing and conducting music during retirement.
Larson, who was one of the youngest teachers when she started at Aspen Middle School, said she is now one of the oldest. She heard retirement knocking when she realized her first-year students are now 38 years old.
In fact, some of her former students are now her fellow teachers.
“It’s time to move on, pass the torch,” she said.
Education is an all-encompassing profession, she explained, with the weekly 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule logged at school, hours spent correcting papers and weekends dedicated to preparing lesson plans.
“I’m not burned out, but I’m getting tired,” she said. She wants to retire while she’s still feeling spry. “I hope I can just relax, hike more and read books.”
And what does Larson look forward to most in retirement?
“I’m ready to not have to get up with an alarm clock,” she said.
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