Math teacher retires after 41 years at Stillwater Area High School

Cathy Gunvalson hugs a student the end of the last day of school, May 31. (Photo by Alicia Lebens)

The last 41 years have gone by quickly for Stillwater Area High School math teacher Cathy Gunvalson.

“In the rest of the world, you work with people of all ages, but when you work in a high school, the people you work with are always 15-18 years old,” Gunvalson said. “It makes time seem to go by faster.”

Gunvalson retired on Wednesday, May 31, after 41 years as a teacher in the Stillwater Area School District, plus one in another district.

Known to her students as “Mrs. G,” Gunvalson went to Bemidji State University and graduated in 1975 with a degree in math education. A college student at the height of the Vietnam War, Gunvalson remembers the chaos and confusion of being in her early 20s.

“Students were protesting and there was the Kent State shooting,” Gunvalson said. “At the same time, boys from my home town were dying in Vietnam.”

Initially, Gunvalson wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. She also considered being a social worker, a physical therapist or a kindergarten teacher — all careers that involved helping people. However, it was the constant nature of mathematics that Gunvalson was drawn to.

“With the Vietnam War going on, it was troubling times,” she said. “Math was one part of the world where I had an answer.”

Gunvalson described herself as a logical and analytical person, who enjoys seeing her math students when they reach “that good feeling you get when everything comes together.”

When Gunvalson came to Stillwater Area High School after teaching for one year at Apollo High School in St. Cloud, the school district looked different than it does today and faced several challenges.

“There were so many students that we were on a four-day schedule,” Gunvalson said. “Some days you felt like you didn’t know what class you were going to have.”

For a while, Stillwater schools leased the Hill High School building from the recently combined Hill-Murray High School to house the Stillwater sophomore class. Later, students were shuttled to the Washington School in Stillwater for English and math classes and then shuttled back to the main high school campus — now the Stillwater Junior High building.

“For the first couple years, I wondered if this was the right job for me,” Gunvalson said.

In 1993, the new high school building was constructed and Gunvalson moved into the classroom she would teach in for the next couple decades.

“When they designed the new building, they asked the teachers what they wanted most and we all said, ‘a window,’” Gunvalson said.

One of the things Gunvalson is proud of doing is mentoring younger teachers.

“What I would say to a younger teacher is to work with a mentor, ask for help, observe and ask for advise,” she said. “When you first start teaching, you know the math, but you gain wisdom as the years go by.”

Whenever she meets a new person and finds out he or she is a teacher, Gunvalson said she becomes instant friends with the person.

“When I find out they are a math teacher, we become best buds,” she said.

One of the great joys in Gunvalson’s career has been working with students and teaching math at different levels. For the last 15 years, Gunvalson has taught AP calculus and pre-calculus.

“Calculus takes all the skills the students have learned in geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and brings it all together,” Gunvalson said.

She has enjoyed teaching calculus so much that she intends to tutor calculus students during retirement.

“My husband retired a year ago, and we also hope to travel more,” Gunvalson said. “I also like to garden, so I hope to give my gardens more attention.”

After the bell rang on the last day of school, students came to Gunvalson’s classroom for farewell cards and hugs for “Mrs. G.” Words of encouragement synonymous with Gunvalson — “Calc Rocks and so do I” — still fill the whiteboard.

“My word of advice to students is to put your cellphone away, look another person in the eye and have a conversation,” Gunvalson said. “Show your interest in people and write a hand-written letter.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

This story has been updated to correct the year the new high school building was built.

District 834 staff members retiring this year

• Robert Bonine, teacher – 33 years
• Kathryn Clarys, teacher – 21 years
• Carolyn Cunningham, teacher – 14 years
• Julie Edwards, teacher – 36 years
• Ellen Eigner, teacher – 24 years
• Lynn Garavalia, paraprofessional – 16 years
• Jill Hanson-Furlong, school secretary – 12 years
• Wendy Hefflefinger, payroll technician – 17 years
• Jeffrey Hudson, teacher – 34 years
• Lynda Kemp, paraprofessional – 21 years
• Karlene Krick, teacher – 20 years
• Kathleen Lamanna, teacher – 20 years
• Nancy Leekley, paraprofessional – 12 years
• Karen Manske, early childhood program administrator – 4 years
• Margaret Meyer, early childhood – 16 years
• Gloria Mueller, teacher – 15 years
• Maren Ogdie, teacher – 33 years
• Kimberly Olsen, teacher – 23 years
• Mike Oswald, custodian – 19 years
• Susan Pater, teacher – 20 years
• Jacquelyn Patrick, paraprofessional, 24 years
• Sandra Pederson, teacher – 24 years
• Jean Radke, early childhood – 31 years
• Marlyn Regis, teacher – 28 years
• Lisa Schoelerman, teacher – 18 years
• Karen Shoemaker, paraprofessional 15 years
• Susan Sievert, teacher – 33 years
• Gloria Solum, teacher – 17 years
• Carolyn Sorenson, teacher – 6 years
• Lois Sortedahl, teacher – 22 years
• Mary Straiton, paraprofessional – 21 years
• Susan Thiel, paraprofessional – 20 years
• Theresa Tiernan, teacher – 7 years
• Lisa Weyrauch, school secretary – 14 years