News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

‘Mr. A’ ends long teaching career

A lot has changed in Sisters since 1983, but there has been one constant in town, a man who impacted the lives of hundreds of school-aged kids: Sisters Elementary School (SES) teacher Kirk Albertson, or “Mr. A,” as he is affectionately known.

Albertson has decided to retire, ending a teaching career spanning 38 years, 36 of which were in Sisters.

Albertson was a 25-year-old, who was just about to enter finals week at Oregon College of Education (OCE), now Western Oregon University, when principal Earl Armbruster contacted OCE out of the blue looking for a male instructor for an assignment of teaching first grade. After an initial conversation with Armbruster, Albertson was invited to Sisters for a full interview.

Concerned that he would miss finals to go for an interview, he went to his professors, who told him not to worry about it. “You are going to have the ultimate final exam, so skip the paperwork and go do the interview,” they said.

He was hired, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

When he arrived on the scene in the fall of 1983, Sisters had a population of around 500, and the school district served grades kindergarten through eighth grade. High school students were bussed to Redmond for classes.

Teaching was not Albertson’s initial career aspiration. After graduating from Willamette High School in 1977, Albertson enrolled in what is now Southern Oregon University to study law enforcement.

“I found criminology endlessly fascinating, but at some point I finally had an epiphany, realizing that dealing with the deviant population of society might not be the way I really wanted to spend my days,” he said.

Albertson had some friends majoring in education and had also done work in the summer with day camps for children, and he came to the conclusion that working with young people “was the end of the stick I wanted to have a hold of.”

He discovered that OCE was “the place to be for learning to become a teacher,” so he transferred and completed his degree there.

After four years in Sisters, Albertson actually broke away, from 1987-89 when his wife at the time took a job in Southern Oregon. But he returned when his wife’s position disappeared.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Where do we want to be?’ and inquired back in Sisters where there was a middle-school position opening, so I came back and taught grades six, seven, and eight for five years before moving back to the elementary grades.”

Having taught a number of different grades, he says, “Third grade is sort of a sweet spot.” But he also found teaching first grade very rewarding as well.

“First graders grow so much from September to June, and since teaching reading was my passion, it was remarkable to see their development,” he said.

Albertson says his longevity in Sisters may stem from the fact that he went to a different grade school nearly every year while growing up in Eugene.

“My mother was a realtor, and both she and my dad were sort of wandering souls, so we moved a lot, maybe as they were looking for the next great house deal,” he said. “I found that very difficult, having to try to make new friends every year.

“I really like small towns and the sense of community that Sisters is so well known for.”

Julie Holden, who has taught third grade along with Albertson the past few years, arrived in Sisters in 1998 and met Albertson when she subbed for him.

“I remember how much I loved being in his classroom because he had created such a unique culture with his students that made it clear how connected they were to him and to each other,” she said. “After I got hired in 2000 and got to work alongside Kirk, I found him to be so accepting and welcoming to his students, and there was a flexibility and playfulness in the way he approached his teaching. The mutual respect between Kirk and his students, and his ability to roll with what is happening — being fluid — allows students to really flourish and be excited about learning.”

Aaron Simundson, a graduate of Sisters High School, who just finished his first year of teaching at Sisters Elementary School, first encountered Albertson as a grade-school student, though he never had him as a teacher.

Simundson said, “Now, after working across the hall from him, it’s funny how my memory of Mr. A as a kid mirrors the Kirk I’ve had the privilege of getting to know as an adult. Easygoing, cool, calm, and collected — always with a smile and a warm greeting, no matter who you are.”

He added, “It has been really cool to see how well his students respond to his energy. Sometimes during the year I would peek into his classroom and soak in some Mr. A for a minute or two.”

Albertson is a lifelong learner. Five years ago, in response to facing more children experiencing trauma, attention issues, and the inability to regulate themselves well, Albertson took a summer class called Yoga Calm, where he learned more about trauma-informed teaching practices.

“Doing yoga with the students actually helps them to become more aware of themselves and their bodies and gives them an opportunity to be a bit introspective, which is the key to learning how to self-regulate in a classroom setting,” he said.

Albertson’s professional longevity in Sisters afforded him the opportunity to teach a second generation of some of his earlier students, which he found to be a “full-circle” experience.

When asked what advice he would give to young or prospective teachers, he said, “Persistence is vital. Teaching is difficult. A lot of young teachers quit too early, but don’t realize that if they would persist they would get better.”

He also believes that having mentors and stable, capable school leaders makes all the difference.

Albertson said he felt blessed in his early years to have such a mentor in long-time SES teacher Laurine Clemens.

“I would tell people that I got a teaching certificate in college, but it was Laurine Clemens who actually taught me how to teach.

“She absolutely, in her subtle, kind, generous way, guided me through best practices in education as my teaching partner in first grade in those initial years. Having a mentor like that right next door to me helped me tremendously.”

Albertson also looks back with appreciation and fondness for those early days when the staff was small enough that they could all fit in one house for a get-together.

“We had a strong bond together and a culture of support that is harder to attain in a larger school system,” he said. “We had a collective support system. I was really lucky to have had that, especially at the start of my career.”

One of Albertson’s long-time colleagues, fourth-grade teacher Clay Warburton said, “Mr. Albertson constantly connected to all aspects of learning with multiple modalities. If teaching is truly an art, then Mr. Albertson has been painting a masterpiece for the past 37 years.”

Sisters Elementary School Principal Joan Warburg feels awe when considering Albertson’s long career.

“It is powerful to consider that Kirk has been here at SES since 1983 and that he has positively impacted the lives of generations of Sisters children,” she said. “It is rare for a teacher to remain at one school for so long and speaks volumes about his loyalty and commitment to this community. His kind, humble, and gracious spirit will be missed here.”

Albertson is not sure how moving into retirement will go, but he thinks that it may be easier than for people who did not have a profession that included summers off.

“I have gotten some practice being away from work, so I think it will be okay,” he said.

Fly-fishing and other outdoor pursuits are among his favorite pastimes, and being “free” in the fall is very attractive to him.

“Oregon is beautiful in September, so I have plans for some trips with my fishing gear in the fall, which will be nice,” he said.

“I do expect that by November, however, I will be looking for something to get up for in the morning. I don’t plan to do any substitute teaching, but I picture myself finding something to do that involves people. I know I will really miss interacting with my teaching colleagues, so I plan to pay attention to what I want and need as I move forward.”


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