Kingsland kindergarten teacher Marilyn Erdman shows off a drawing made by her grandchildren.  PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Kingsland kindergarten teacher Marilyn Erdman shows off a drawing made by her grandchildren. PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
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"I had no inkling, none," said Kingsland kindergarten teacher Marilyn Erdman about an assembly March 21 that was set up in her honor.

"I had asked Mr. Priebe what the activity was, and I had arranged for a magician to come, but we got down there to the gym, and I was thinking, 'They called us all down here for the noodle collection?'" Erdman's tiny irk with the elementary school's supposed "Use Your Noodle" food drive reward assembly soon turned to confusion as she noticed that the principal, Christopher Priebe, had the students gathered and excited about something "secret."

Then the same gentleman she'd passed in the hall minutes ago, who was from the Post-Bulletin in Rochester, was reading about a teacher who does wonderful things, including "singing the school song."

"That's when I knew he was talking about me - when I heard her say that 'this teacher loves the Kingsland Knights school song' - and I saw my family come in carrying flowers," said Erdman.

Erdman has been chosen as the April Post-Bulletin Teacher of the Month, and the "noodle" assembly held in her honor and to surprise her worked so very well. She recounted, "When I went to stand up, I thought, 'I hope I don't faint' because it would upset the kids. I got up front, and remember trying to say something and keep it short."

What she did say was how much she loves her job, how the students light her day, how she appreciates the Kingsland staff, then she gave every kindergartener a hug, getting a giant group hug from her own class. "The day was just overwhelming. It was so heartfelt, so wonderful to think that people believe in you and what you do."

She spent the rest of the day trying to re-gather herself, wondering who might have nominated her for such an honor, and she finally found out that a parent of one of her students - Sarah Reiland - had nominated her. "What an honor when a parent takes the time and energy...there's no greater payment on earth than to have parents believe you're wonderful."

But Erdman, whose aspirations toward a teaching career began when she was just a child who "wanted to grow up to be a teacher and a mom because I adored my teacher, Mrs. Collett, and I had an aunt who taught kindergarten," believes that her students "are treasures. For 183 days, they're yours, and they're treasures," she stated.

Erdman began teaching first grade in West Concord in 1970 and started teaching kindergarten there six years later because a colleague was departing from the district and recommended that she try it. She also did community education and early childhood family education there, and taught seventh grade art.

"When I started teaching kindergarten, I realized that I loved it because in other grades, you have to go by the book, whereas in kindergarten, you can bring in a coin collector and show the children coins so that by the end of the hour, they can tell you what a dime looks like," she explained.

Now, Erdman, who joined the staff at Wykoff Elementary School in 1987, still loves kindergarten as much as, or even more than, the day she first became a kindergarten teacher more than three decades ago.

"With kindergarten, the kids walk in the door in the fall, and they're just like Minnesota rocks that you find in landscaping. They're all different sizes, shapes and colors, and when you think about it, some have been to preschool, some have been to daycare, and some have never left home. When those kids walk through my door, it becomes my task to help them. I want to even the playing field, give them a balanced experience - everybody gets to ride the bus, everybody gets Play-doh. I want to give them all the same experience and come back to the classroom and use that experience to build their vocabulary, help them learn about everything and anything."

From the janitor bringing a vacuum cleaner to the classroom and dismantling its removable parts to explain how it works to bundling everyone up and taking them on a peanut butter and jelly winter picnic, Erdman believes in "throwing learning in everything, everywhere." That means if a visitor stops into the classroom and is carrying a curious item that might be of interest to her students, the visitor has the opportunity to share about that item, or if a hawk lands on the limb lashed to a stake outside her classroom window, discussion arises about the hawk's color, wing shape, its eye color and extraordinary vision.

The lessons come not only from the teacher, but also from the students. "I learn all the time from these kids. I think every day I'm here, I learn something from them...every day, they teach me. I've become a better listener. When they're telling stories, I listen and watch, and I know what's rolling about in their heads. They get in my heart and never leave. It's such an honor to get a wedding invitation from someone I've had as a kindergartener, and these big boys I pass in the hall wave and say 'Hi, Mrs. Erdman.' I might have to go look up their name, but the next day, I can say 'hi' to them."

If a child asks her to attend a piano, dance, Sunday school or kazoo recital, she's there. If a child asks her to attend his grandmother's funeral, she says "absolutely." "There's no greater gift than when a child invites you to something."

She credits her family, Kingsland staff and the community for making kindergarten the educational magic that it is. "I feel very supported. I know my family has supported me all my life - my parents, my husband and my kids. When I come home at night, supper is made, and I don't fill my car with gas - somebody else does. My husband is so helpful. Rick builds shelves for the classroom, hung bulletin boards for the entire kindergarten. My kids grew up knowing that they had things to do, and they did them so that I could be here from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. I come in on Sunday afternoons because I love what I do. My family helps me get ready for the end-of-year picnic at our house. We have kindergarten families coming to have hot dogs with us at our house, to see that 'that's where Mrs. Erdman lives,' and Rick pulls the tractors into the yard so the kids can see what it's like to sit up that high to drive. Sometimes he gets a calf from the neighbors for the kids to pet, sometimes he goes to the store and buys the groceries for the picnic, but they all make it happen."

At the school, "everybody pitches in, and I know I have wonderful support here at Kingsland...I always feel so supported." She pointed out that the community gives so very much, recounting how she had her class make cookies one December and take them downtown to the business owners in Spring Valley to show them appreciation, only to have the lesson in kindergarten generosity backfire as each of the business owners gave the students something to take back to their classroom. "If I need a fiddle player, I call someone and they'll come. If I need a donation or people to make a Veterans' Day program happen, I call the VFW. The community is just so wonderful."

And one of the most important lessons she's taught her students is how to say "thank you." But to have the community, students and staff say "thank you"?

"It was just so overwhelming...I feel fortunate, so very honored. That's the kind of stuff you want to savor."