Highlighting Inspiring Women: She educates

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MFL MarMac Elementary Principal Kathy Koether

Throughout March, which is Women’s History Month, the North Iowa Times will publish a series of articles highlighting local women. Whether it's through their careers, hobbies, volunteer efforts or unique personalities, these women have become an inspiration to others. Here is our fourth article, featuring MFL MarMac Elementary Principal Kathy Koether.


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“My philosophy has been that I have tried to make a difference for each and every person. It’s similar to the saying about the person who was picking up a starfish that had washed onto the beach among thousands, and was tossing each one back. When asked ‘Why bother? There are too many,’ the person replied: ‘I made a difference for that one.’”

With 45 years in education, first as a teacher and now as MFL MarMac’s elementary principal, Kathy Koether hasn’t made a difference in just one life, but many.

Growing up in southern Iowa, she can’t recall a time when she didn’t want to become a teacher. 

“I didn’t have to think about it,” she said. “I’ve always loved working with kids, and I was particularly interested in special education.”

That love was fostered in high school, volunteering in a special education classroom her mother, a certified teacher, had created in a church basement.

“At that time,” said Kathy, “there weren’t any special education programs offered. Eventually, the school did pick up the program.”

Kathy’s teaching experience continued in college, when she taught summer school to kindergarten-age students. Following graduation, she began her career at Oelwein, teaching third grade. She later moved to the area, teaching third grade at Luana before classes were later moved to Monona. 

In 1999, Kathy took a job as Valley-Elgin’s elementary principal, a position she held for eight years before returning to MFL MarMac.

As a principal, Kathy admitted she missed the classroom, but found solace in being able to help a greater number of students.

“It dawned on me that, as a teacher, I can assist, help and inform 20 kids in a classroom,” she explained. “As a principal, I can be part of 300 or 400 kids’ lives. I can expand my influence.”

That doesn’t mean Kathy isn’t a regular in the school’s classrooms. She enjoys reading to her students, and, in turn, having them read to her. She also likes working with small groups of kids.

“Daily, I am able to visit with students, see their smiles and help solve any problems that may come about,” she said.

During April, which is reading month at the elementary, Kathy has especially enjoyed challenging students to read more. As an incentive, she agrees to do something funny. Over the years, that’s included kissing both a fish and a pig, dressing as a bird and dancing, reading aloud in a bear costume and being duct-taped to the wall.

Kathy said she feeds off that energy, watching her students grow and learn from the early preschool years through third grade.

“Kids are always full of energy. They’re positive, and they love to give hugs. They talk about their favorite subjects, the things they do and their favorite books,” Kathy said. “They have good ideas about how to make things fun and how to solve problems with each other. They’re open to learning, and they tell it like it is. It makes me feel pepped up.”

As principal, Kathy said one of the most rewarding aspects is working on global problems and solutions. She works on curriculums and professional development, and can set up programs that aid students and families on a larger scale.

She’s witnessed the rise of technology in education, both in and outside the classroom. Communication with parents can now just be a click or tap away. Students are engaged in new ways.

“Education used to be one size fits all,” she said. “Everyone got the same assignment, the same work, and they’d do it all day long.”

Now, Kathy noted, student learning is increasingly self-directed, and they have more opportunities to work independently to expand their knowledge bases. Assignments are differentiated.

“There’s more technology and more opportunities for extra-curriculars, such as plays and field trips,” she said. “We put technology in everyone’s hands. It’s not the whole program, but a part of the curriculum. We want them to be so engaged they’re not looking at the clock.” 

Programs also help kids with everything from speech and movement to guidance. 

“We look at the whole child,” Kathy remarked, “not just the academic child.”

Kathy credits the school’s teachers and other staff members for facilitating these changes and forging positive relationships with students.

“They do a good job of balancing what’s expected—benchmarks and standards—while working in some fun academic work,” she said.

She appreciates her relationships with the teachers, as well. Trading feedback, partaking in philosophical discussions, preparing for new things on the educational horizon and creating plans for kids who need support are just a few ways in which staff have created a good environment, Kathy said.

“We give each other the courage to be good educators,” she shared. “MFL MarMac has great staff who are willing to be life-long learners. They put their heart and soul into education.”

Kathy also values the school’s community support, which, over the years, has included donations of school supplies, winter gear and food for the weekends. Funds also help every student attend a play at Luther College.

But most of all, it’s the little things—the look on a student’s face when he or she learns something new, a former student saying hello or sharing a fond memory, a simple note or positive comment from a parent—that brighten Kathy’s days.

“I hope they know I cared about them, that I was supportive of their experiences,” she said. “I hope they thought I was approachable, flexible and a good listener, that I provided the vision for a positive school environment, a school parents and kids could be proud of.”

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