July 9, 2020 --
She called them her kidlets. After 47 years of teaching, Gerlinde Aalto decided it was time to say goodbye to them.
At the end of the day on June 23, Aalto officially entered retirement. She spent her entire career in School District No. 57, first at Blackburn Elementary (three years), then at Quinson Elementary (23 years) and finally at Southridge Elementary (21 years). She also worked for one month at Harwin Elementary, where she got her start in the district in June of 1973 as a fill-in for a teacher who went on medical leave.
"I really enjoyed what I did, and it was fun," said Aalto, the longest-serving teacher in SD 57 at the time of her retirement. "There were definitely aspects of my job that I didn't consider fun, like report cards, but the teaching end of it was just so enjoyable – the interaction with the kids and their contagious enthusiasm. I loved all that."
Aalto saw each day in the classroom as a new adventure.
"Every day, you teach something different and I always believed if I was bored with my lesson the kids were bored so it was time to change it up," she said. "I was really someone who liked being on top of what was happening, the newest things coming out in education."
Aalto taught Grade 4 and Grade 5. She was so loved by students that those who didn't have her as a teacher, wanted her. Those who did have her, wanted her again.
"There were Grade 7s who'd say to me, 'Can I come back and be one of your kidlets?' and I'd say, 'Ah, you're kind of too tall to be one of my kidlets now,'" she said. "And one of the Grade 7s said to me, 'Mrs. A.! Once a kidlet, always a kidlet!'"
Aalto was truly meant for her profession. When she came home from her first day of school as a six-year-old in Germany, she told her mom that when she grew up she wanted to be a teacher. Her mom kind of shrugged, with a 'that's nice, dear' expression on her face. But the young girl – Gerlinde Kubske at the time – never changed her mind. The family moved to Prince George a little more than a year later, in 1959, and Aalto eventually enrolled at the University of Victoria (1970) to begin work on a Bachelor of Education degree. She had just finished her teaching practicum when she took the temporary assignment at Harwin in 1973.
Aalto's first year at Blackburn was challenging but her second and third years were much smoother. She knew then, that yes, she would be a teacher and would be in it for the long haul. She accepted a transfer to Quinson for September of 1976 and went on to become a fixture at the school.
At some point during her Quinson days, Aalto came across a quotation by renowned educator and child psychologist, Haim Ginott, and put a poster of his words on a wall near her desk. From that day forward, the Ginott poster was in every classroom in which Aalto taught. The wisdom it displayed became a driving force behind her teaching and a perpetual reminder. On those occasions when she was having a tough day, all she had to do was look at it.
The quote reads: "I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."
In Aalto's view, Ginott's quotation says everything a person needs to know about being a teacher and the responsibility the job carries. Whenever she had a student teacher in her classroom, she'd draw the aspiring educator's attention to the poster.
"I'd say, 'Read this!'" Aalto said with a laugh.
Aalto has many happy memories from her 23 years at Quinson. She'd arrive in the morning in her white and red Mustang Cobra II, which made a big impression on the students. Once inside the building, she was part of a cohesive and dedicated staff, something she remembers and appreciates to this day. Along with her regular work in the classroom, she taught music and choir in the early part of her Quinson tenure. She often played songs by ABBA and ELO – popular groups at the time – to help grow the love of music in her students. Aalto also enjoyed reading to her classes and was famous for adopting different voices for the characters in any given book. The Bunnicula novels by James Howe were a student favourite.
One year, fellow staff member Marilyn Hodgson took a trip to Hawaii and brought back a Garfield book for Aalto. That one issue was the start of what would become a huge collection.
"A child would say, 'Oh, here's another one to keep that one company,' and then 'another one to keep that one company,'" Aalto said. "Pretty soon, I was called the Garfield lady or the Garfield teacher."
When she felt it was time for a change, Aalto accepted a transfer to Southridge. She started there in September of 1999 and, after more than two years of teaching in portables in the quickly-growing school, had the thrill of moving into Southridge's newly-constructed addition.
"We got to move into the new wing of the school, which was wonderful," she said. "It was so nice after being out in the portable. We moved – I think it was after spring break in April – and the kids all moved out with me. We loved moving into the building and having these brand new classrooms."
Aalto continued to work her magic as a teacher. Just like at Quinson, she was always keenly aware of the mood in her room. On those occasions when she needed to lighten things up, she'd reach into one of her desk drawers for a ready solution.
"I found that if I gave the kids something before a test – a jelly bean, a little piece of fruit snack – they would relax (as if to say), 'I can do this,'" she said. "I always called it energy – never candy, never treats. It was energy."
This school year, Aalto trimmed her work schedule to three days per week. She had a feeling it might be her last year and became 100 per cent certain once the COVID-19 pandemic changed the teaching landscape after spring break. She finished with a class of Grade 4s and said she couldn't have asked for a better group.
"They were kind, empathetic, they got along with each other – if I had to describe them I'd just say they're wonderful children," Aalto said. "Last year's group was great too. Somebody once said to me, 'I don't think you've ever had a bad class. You end up loving them all.'"
On Aalto's last day, Julie Fisher, Marie Fanshaw and Southridge teacher Kortney Huber honoured Aalto and her husband, Kari, with a live performance of She Wasn't Born To Follow, a personalized version (penned by Fisher) of a Bon Jovi song called We Weren't Born To Follow. Aalto is a huge Bon Jovi fan and has seen the group live in concert four times.
Leading up to retirement day, Southridge staff member Tim Clough posted on Facebook (on HYPG), asking former students and colleagues to share their memories of Aalto and to wish her all the best. His request generated more than 200 comments, which Southridge's Sherry Kozak then compiled into a beautifully-done memory book.
Aalto is "humbled" by all the work and thoughtfulness put into her retirement celebration.
Former student Sarah White is one of the people who made a Facebook post to congratulate Aalto. It reads as follows: "Happy retirement Mrs. Aalto. You were my Grade 4 teacher at Quinson. I'm now 36 and nearly done a masters degree and through all the years of many teachers in all levels of my education, you were one of the best. Sincere thank you for being such a great mentor in my life and the lives of so many students."
In response to this comment and others like it, Aalto – who has no children of her own – said her indelible impact on students came down to one thing.
"I loved them," she concluded. "They were my kids."