Schleper's love of teaching was 'meant to be'
Posted on: Aug 16, 2018
With the retirement of Joe Schleper this summer, Delano Elementary School is losing both an innovative classroom teacher and an integral staff member who mentored young teachers and set an example in work ethic, dedication and enthusiasm.
Fortunately for the community of Delano, however, Schleper plans to remain active on the city parks board and with the Athletic Club, through which he is helping to chair the town team state baseball tournament in 2019.
Shortly before the end of the school year Schleper explained that he has not tired of teaching after 36 years, but the impending transition of fourth-graders to the intermediate school coinciding with retirement age has led to a natural stopping point.
“Some people on Sunday nights before Monday morning don’t want to go back to work. I’ve never had that feeling while teaching,” Schleper said. “Sunday nights I’m ready to go, so I’m glad I’ve had that feeling right to the end. I’m not burnt out. I still feel excited about the job, and I’m happy to go out that way.”
Schleper’s wife Cheryl, a first-grade teacher, is also departing on a three-year leave of absence.
“How do you replace someone like Joe when they retire? You don’t,” said Delano Elementary School Principal Darren Schuler. “The Schlepers brought a level of work ethic that will be difficult to replace. They’re both get-it-done kind of people, whether it was in the classroom or at a baseball tournament or a basketball tournament. Those people are hard to find, being as dedicated as they both were.”
Although he found complete satisfaction in the teaching profession, Schleper initially started down a different career path. He grew up in Shakopee and graduated from St. John’s University with a degree in business, then took a job at a bank.
Less than two years later, however, a friend who knew that Schleper had started college as both a business and elementary education major called to tell him about a teaching opening at a parochial school in Lonsdale. The bank offered incentives for him to stay, but he decided to venture out.
“If I didn’t do it then I was never going to do it, so I ended up taking that job,” Schleper said. “I finished my education degree the next summer and 36 years later, here I am.”
The contrast between banking and a teaching career might seem substantial, but Schleper had already spent years as a coach and working with summer recreation programs. He was also the son of two teachers, so “it was in my blood,” he said. “I had a roundabout way of getting into it, but once I got in the classroom it was like it was meant to be. I’ve never looked back and thought about what would have been. It was the right decision, no question.”
After four years in Lonsdale-New Market-Veseli and another four years in New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, Schleper came to Delano as a fifth-grade teacher in 1989.
“I was happy to come to a school with just one name,” he said with a laugh.
He taught one year at fifth grade and another at sixth grade before shifting to fourth grade. The first half of his initial fourth-grade year was spent in what is now the Community Education building before the new elementary school opened.
“Moving over the winter break was challenging, but it was also really exciting,” Schleper said.
In the classroom Schleper oversaw a variety of engaging projects that challenged students to create geo-domes, build castles, wire electro boards, construct bridges and write poetry books, among other activities.
“Joe did a really great job of bringing project-based learning to fourth grade,” said Schuler. “I think he had a unique way of allowing kids of all levels to really enjoy that type of learning.”
Over the years Schleper said teaching styles have shifted away from the lecture format to more interactive models, and he has seen student enthusiasm increase even as standards have risen. Things that were taught in fifth grade through seventh grade 20 years ago are now taught in fourth grade.
“Overall I think that’s a positive thing, because a lot of kids are so ready for that,” Schleper said. “When you see what they can do, they surprise you. Some people think kids have changed a lot. They obviously come in with a better background with technology, but kids are still kids. They’re still looking to make a connection with you as a teacher. You have to work to motivate them. I think if you have engaging activities they still work hard. They’re still motivated. I get comments from parents all the time about how engaged their kids are, so that’s rewarding to hear.”
Schuler also credited Schleper with outstanding effort in communicating with parents, citing his Sunday evening newsletters and photos that highlighted life in the classroom. In addition, Schleper compiled extensive student portfolios during the school year. The portfolios were used as conference tools and eventually became scrap books that included samples of the students’ work along with an abundance of photos to memorialize the fourth-grade experience.
To his colleagues, Schleper was a source of insight on matters ranging from the classroom to home-buying.
“Joe is the type of guy that pulls all new teachers under his wing and helps them get acclimated to teaching life,” said fourth-grade teacher Jim Hall.
Two of those one-time rookies who have since settled in at Delano are fourth-grade teachers Josh Hiltner and Katy Berggren. In a joint statement, they said Schleper’s advice was appreciated in the beginning, and is still sought after today.
“Joe was our mentor when we each arrived in Delano for our first year teaching,” they said. “Though it was a one-year mentorship, it truly never ended! Katy and I have both felt like he is our daily, weekly, and yearly mentor and superhero with cleaning up what we forgot on a daily basis, showing us amazing new ideas within all subjects, and always being a wise, guiding friend with any situation may arise at school or home.”
Schleper was also a consistent advocate for Delano, according to Schuler.
“Joe’s biggest thing was he wanted people to stay here like Cheryl and himself,” Schuler said. “He wanted to foster the feeling that Delano was a lifelong stay in terms of teaching and raising a family, so he’s been a good mentor to some of our younger staff in terms of welcoming them to Delano and making them feel at home.”
Schuler could speak from experience, as Schleper was the one to call and urge him to apply for the principal position in Delano some years after the two had become acquainted as rival coaches in Watertown and Delano.
For his own part, Schleper said he was drawn to stay in Delano because of its location and size, but also because of the sense of community.
“It’s been a great place to raise our family,” he said. “My wife started teaching here a couple of years after I did. It just had a great feel to it. I think the families here are just outstanding families with great kids. There are always some that may be a challenge, but honestly over the years it has just been truly an outstanding experience because of our families.”
Schleper also credited his co-workers, pranks and all, with creating a family atmosphere at work that made Delano a place he never wanted to leave.
Even if he had never become a teacher Schleper would have pursued coaching opportunities, and as a school employee he often coached two or three seasons a year. Ninth-grade football and basketball were some of the positions he held the longest, and he also taught eighth-grade baseball and was an assistant varsity boys basketball coach and middle school girls basketball coach.
“He and Cheryl have been an integral part of youth sports since they moved to Delano,” said Hall. “Their expertise and dedication to our youth sports program will be surely missed.”
Looking back on his career, Schleper said a professional highlight was being named Delano Teacher of the Year in 2000 and becoming one of just nine state finalists for the honor.
“Maybe I peaked back then,” he said with a laugh.
Looking ahead, he said he looks forward to having more time to travel with Cheryl.
“My wife has played a big part in any success I’ve had,” he said. “She’s been our rock at home with the kids when I was coaching three sports. When you’re first starting off and you’re scrambling she was just unbelievable. And she is very talented and creative. I think that has just made me a better teacher, having Cheryl as my partner.”
In the short term, he will be focused on organizing the state town team baseball tournament. One thing is for certain: “We’re both still going to be involved in the community,” Schleper said.
Note: This is the second feature in a five-part series on long-time staff members who have retired from Delano Public Schools this year.