In 19 years as art teacher at the Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Elementary School, Toni Polfus hasn’t missed an opportunity to grow – nor has she neglected the chance to help her students blossom and learn.
Entering the profession with high expectations, Polfus has built an art program at the school that is second to none in the area – she hasn’t had the time for cookie-cutter art and told her students that she expected independence from each of them.
Polfus will be retiring at the end of the 2013-14 school year, but her imprint on the school will not soon be forgotten.
“I’m really sad to be leaving, I love the program I’ve set up here,” Polfus said.
Over the course of the past school year, Polfus has realized that retiring will be difficult.
“I keep finding myself thinking that ‘this will be the last time I will say this .... or the last time to share this.’ And yet I’m ready to retire.”
But it doesn’t mean she will be moving to the easy chair any time soon. There’s still much that Polfus would like to do – and will now have the time to do it.
She will be starting her new adventures beyond the school’s walls at the end of the school year, but she will leave by giving back.
On Tuesday, May 20, Polfus will hold a sale of the artwork she produced in the classroom over the course of the past 19 years – which is a lot of artwork.
And the really great thing about the sale is that all of the proceeds will go directly back into the art department at the school.
“I have tons of my own art here,” Polfus said. “The sale will help the new teacher out, for sure. The idea came from asking the question as to what am I going to do all this art? Somebody will want my muskie. Somebody will want my bluegill.”
The sale is set to be held in the cafeteria of the school and will run between the end of school day at 3:30 p.m. until the conclusion of the spring concert that night at about 8 p.m.
The artwork, which will feature Polfus’s efforts in all mediums, will be for anyone interested in helping the school’s art program.
“I wanted to get the word out. People who have had kids here ... I would like alumni or parents to come.”
Through the years
Polfus is not a Wisconsinite, growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. She completed her undergraduate work in New York and then attended graduate school in Ohio.
“I taught college at Fort Defiance and that was really fun. I really liked teaching college.”
In 1981, Polfus moved to the Northwoods when her husband landed a position with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe.
“It was a great place to come to because I was a professional artist and was able to immediately start selling art and I did that until 1985.”
She also spent time with statewide art programs, completed workshops, and also had students coming to her studio to take lessons.
“And I finally got the job here. I started out at 33 percent and finally got to full-time after six or seven years.”
When she started, she taught students in Kindergarten through fifth grade, but through the years, those responsibilities increased to a K-8 class load.
As to be expected, Polfus has seen many changes in education and society over the years, but is ever-optimistic about the teaching profession and teachers in general.
Some of the changes I’ve seen over the years ... the kids ... I think I’m getting a lot more out of the kids. When they start out at kindergarten and I work with them for nine years ... the stuff I can get out of eighth-graders now is really exciting. They remember the things I taught them in fifth grade and I think I have higher expectations than when I started out.”
And while kids of every era have their own strengths and weaknesses, Polfus said she has come to question the work ethic of many students today as compared with those in the past.
“Are the kids the same today? Today they don’t have the work ethic they used to. I have a lot of kids who will sit and do nothing for a whole day. They don’t work enough.
“Then I have other kids who would say, ‘OK, let’s do it’ ... one child finishes [a project] and I give them the next thing. Everyone works at different levels, so I’m prodding them to keep going.
“I think there’s a lot of not knuckling down and doing all the work they are given. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but it’s scary in terms of these are the kids who will be taking care of me when I get old.
“I was raised by parents of the Depression and World War II where every penny counted and you worked hard. We raised our kids that way.”
While Polfus and other teachers are asking questions about students’ motivations, she is also confident that the education system is better than it has ever been.
“The biggest change has been teaching under Expeditionary Learning. It came in [around 1999 or 2000], but I wasn’t trained in it until 2002-03. It’s helped in [making her] a better teacher. It really changed my teaching. It’s gotten me to using learning targets; making sure students knew what the target was. They always knew it because I used [art medium] examples, but now we are more specific with the words.
“Using ‘I can do this ...’ That’s how we start a lesson. Here is the learning targets ... what we’re moving toward. We talk about fine tuning targets. That’s been the biggest change for me.”
Polfus described how this year she had started using the Habits of Scholarship ... which requires students to be responsible in all ways for the work they do as they are held accountable for their progress.
“Last summer I changed all my rubrics to include Habits of Scholarship in them to reflect learning targets.”
One thing for which Polfus is most proud is that she hasn’t “been static in my teaching. I’ve changed, developed and grown over the years ... and I’ll miss that. Even this year, the second grade is starting new projects and I’ve continued to grow.”
One of the challenges Polfus said she will miss is the developing of lessons to help her grow as a teacher and finding the best way for the student – the best way to connect with students.
“I just had a great experience today connecting with a student that is a difficult student to connect to. We got over that hump today and that was really nice. You know by this point you would think I would have that figured out, but I don’t. Each child is different. and you have to learn about each child ... I’ll have a success and then I’ll have a failure. I’m not perfect, that’s for sure. I mess up with kids and do my best to repair whatever I’ve done to hurt their feelings or whatever it is that’s been done.”
Polfus didn’t back down from any of the challenges she faced over the years and even went above and beyond her classroom to work with students.
One example of that was a book club she established for students who wanted to meet during free time to read and discuss books that were assigned outside the classroom.
Because Polfus is a reader, this was her opportunity to use another of her skills to connect positively with students.
“Getting kids to stay after school to read books on the side was great. I love to read and do that, so that was a lot of fun.”
Another example of utilizing the skills learned in the classroom and extending those ideas outside the doors is with her coordination with the completion of a mural on walls within the school each year.
“Murals ... I think we’re on our sixteenth. John Folsom [the previous art teacher at the school] did a few.
“[My] first was with the fifth grade class. After that we said never again ... and agreed to do them with eighth-graders as an after-school program.
“I’ve always been so impressed. Many schools will have a muralist come in and draw in the lines. [With the AV-W murals] it’s the students’ ideas. We spend four months just on the idea and hammering out the idea. There are always 12 to 17 people involved and that means there are a lot of ideas ... it ebbs and flows and finally ends up with everyone ready to start drawing and getting it on the wall.
“I’ve always had parental help and I facilitate it. Even though I feel I don’t do anything, I do a lot in getting the students to understand that it’s their mural, not Mrs. Polfus’s mural.”
The state of education
Overall, Polfus is enthused about the state of education, not only in Arbor Vitae and Woodruff, but across the entire Lakeland area.
“I think we’re better. This EL stuff is amazing. I think the quality of education [in all the] area schools is incredible ... I think we’re on the right track. Teachers are working really hard. I’m here until five o’clock every day. The quality of education is really great and the students taking the courses are really taking them.
“For instance, the sixth grade is doing this cancer expedition and we’re taking them to Madison to the cancer research center on campus. That’s amazing. My kids didn’t go to Madison for something like this.
“I went on the eighth grade trip to the Bong museum – that was amazing. I just think the opportunities we are giving these kids ... all the parts that go together to give a rich education instead of reading out of a book ... it’s amazing.”
After Polfus leaves the school, she admitted that it will be difficult to keep her away and to hold her down in pursuit of other projects
“I will still come back to AV-W; I’ll volunteer for some projects like Civil War Days and expeditions. I can be the expert.”
She said she will continue to be a professional artist and sell her work from her home, on the Internet and at local venues, such as at River Run Pottery.
She has two studios at home – a studio for watercolor and another for pottery.
“And I have to clean my house. Too many years of teaching and saying ‘later.’
“I have ignored things that I should have been sorting through. We still have grade school stuff from the children ... every day I will do an hour of cleaning. I will walk my dog and ski when I want to ski – We just better have another winter like we had this last year.”
Joy of being an educator
After nearly two decades in the classroom, Polfus has seen much success, as well as failures.
As for her greatest joy, she said, “I love watching the kids grow from kindergarten to eighth grade. It’s so much fun to work with them and go over the bumps and humps of daily existence ... and watch them make art and when they realize that they can do what they thought they couldn’t and being so proud of it ... I do like the failures and successes after that. I’ve never given up on a child. I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with them.
“I always told the kids that I don’t want cookie cutter art that looks like mine – it better look different.”
Raymond T. Rivard may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org