Whether sharing a Bible verse, finding a practical way for first grade students to use math or putting a Band-Aid on a student after a fall, Calvin Christian School teacher Marilyn Hielkema has made quite an impression.
“An awesome teacher,” “amazing,” and “the best teacher ever,” are some of the comments shared by her 1st grade class that has 26 students this year.
Unfortunately for the school and future first graders, Hielkema is retiring after 39 years teaching at Calvin Christian School, which today has about 220 K-8 students in Blaine and is part of network of schools including another K-8 location in Edina and a high school in Fridley. Hielkema was in Edina until the new Blaine location opened in 1992.
“My emotions and my heart are still in teaching,” Hielkema said. “I’ve been incredibly blessed because not very many people love their jobs as much as I do.”
Nevertheless, Hielkema said her “body and mind were saying it’s time to slow down.” She plans to travel more with her husband of 25 years and spend more time with her 88-year-old mother who lives in Milaca.
Hielkema went to high school in Milaca and prior to that was at a small Christian school in Pease that did not offer kindergarten, but instructed first through eighth grades.
After receiving her teaching degree from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, the principal of a new school in Memphis, Tennessee hired her in 1970. For five years, she taught second grade students before she returned to her home state after accepting a job at Calvin Christian School’s Edina campus in 1975.
It was “God’s leading” that caused her to move back to Minnesota and it was a calling for her from a young age to become a teacher. Even as a middle school student, she would help teachers if she was waiting an extra half-hour for a bus. She quickly developed enough trust that she helped correct grammatical and spelling errors in papers.
When she took the Calvin Christian School job in 1975, Hielkema thought she may only stay for five years before moving onto life’s next challenge, but she became comfortable with the people she was around every day and stayed loyal to the school even when she was transferred to the new campus in Blaine in 1992.
Although Calvin Christian School needed a north metro presence to address growing enrollment, it did not need all the space so its kindergarten through third grade students initially shared the former public elementary school building with the Anoka County government until the school was able to take on the whole building for a K-8 school, according to Hielkema, who taught multiple grades until settling into a 1st grade classroom.
What she has enjoyed about teaching first grade is watching kids have their “wow” moments when they comprehend something for the first time after she has worked hard teaching them.
Because Calvin Christian School is not a large building, she is able to watch her former students grow up before her. Five of her former students are now teaching at Calvin Christian School.
“To watch that progression in kids, in academic learning and social learning and their relationship with God, is by far the most rewarding thing,” she said.
As the years passed, parents became busier and technology became more integrated into daily life and her lessons. With more emphasis on early childhood education and educational books and television programming, “kids have become much more knowledgeable,” Hielkema said.
“They know so much about animals because they watch programs about it,” Hielkema said. “They travel more. They see more.”
Because young kids have so much knowledge building up inside of them even before they get to the classroom, Hielkema said teaching has become more inclusive.
When she was in grade school, “I was expected to sit quietly and just do my work. You didn’t really have to figure things out because you were told what to do. Now it’s more interactive. Kids work together. They work in groups.”
A couple of Hielkema’s current first grade students spoke about how she helped them with math by studying time. The lesson they referred to actually focused on reading and math. Hielkema brings every student who reaches 75 hours of reading during one school year to Dairy Queen for ice cream.
“From a parent’s point of view she’s a friend from the moment you meet her,” said Vicki Harrison, whose first-grade son Jeremy is the second of her children to have been taught by Hielkema. Her third-grader Kent enrolled at the school in the middle of the school year while in first grade.
“She highlights what they’re naturally gifted at and encourages them whether struggling or excelling in an area. You can see why she’s loved,” Harrison said.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org