Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Roosevelt High teacher retiring after 45 years

'Mama' mia! Revered Roosevelt High teacher retiring after 45 years
After 45 years of teaching teenagers everything from darning socks to balancing checkbooks, Joanne Janni Ryles is retiring from Roosevelt High Sch

Joanne Ryles becomes emotional while reading notes students wrote on the "We will miss you" poster outside her classroom.

After 45 years of teaching teenagers everything from darning socks to balancing checkbooks, "Mama Ryles" is retiring from Roosevelt High School.

"Nobody believed her this year when she said she was retiring," said Aly Ryles, Joanne Janni Ryles' youngest daughter. She said her mother had been threatening to retire for several years, but always returned to school in the fall.

But this time she means it. Wednesday, she'll leave her classroom for the last time.

"I didn't want to die at my desk and I have so many things to do on my bucket list," said Ryles. She wants to spend more time with her grandchildren, live in Italy, explore business ventures, finish remodeling her house and get two puppies, just to name a few.

"We'll see when the fall comes if she doesn't show up," joked Aly Ryles, 33, an elementary-school teacher in Dallas.

Ryles came to the school in North Seattle in 1965 as a home-economics teacher. Over the decades, the class has reached far beyond needlepoint and baking, with Ryles helping to lead the way. "It's more focused on life skills rather than cooking and sewing," Ryles said.

Today's classes center on relationships and "just getting along in the world," including classes called independent living and child development. "There's no place for them to learn these things," Ryles said.

When kids get on their own in the world they have no idea about how to budget or how much things cost to live, she said.

Her students — and there have been thousands — say she's been more than just a teacher. She was also a friend and mother figure, earning her the "Mama Ryles" nickname. "One thing I can say about these past 45 years is I have really had fun," said Ryles

Her two daughters remember how their childhood friends bonded with her in and out of the classroom. "They loved our mom more than they loved us," said Aly Ryles.

Praised by students

Ryles has taught students from every background. One is a CEO. Some have been in prison. The list even includes rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot (Anthony Ray).

"I know that for some of the kids, that hour that I have them is the best hour of their day because they're up against so much," Ryles said.

Despite only having Ryles this past school year, Sophie Turnberg, who graduated this week, feels a bond with her. "She really gives you the support you need and the confidence you need to go beyond what you think you can do."

Turnberg, 18, designed and crafted her own prom dress and recently entered another dress in a gown competition, with encouragement and support from Ryles.

But Savannah McAlpin, another recent graduate who first had a class with Ryles as a sophomore, had a rocky start. "She thought I was a devil-child," McAlpin said.

"I was on [Savannah] like a bad rash," said Ryles, who said she never had discipline problems and has only sent two students to the principal's office in her career. "She was always skipping [class] or late or something."

"I've had her three times and each time we've gotten closer," said McAlpin, who also said she's since matured and just earned an "A" in Ryles' class.

Students boast of Ryles' generosity, candor and how she keeps her classes lively and interesting.

"She taught us how to take care of ourselves, not that my wife would agree," said David Covey, 56, with a laugh. Covey took bachelor homemaking with Ryles where "all the baseball and football players learned how to sew buttons on."

Ryles kept an open-door policy with her students, spending lunch periods talking students through their problems. "You could go to her and let it all out," said Britney Cyprian, 24, Seattle, who would go to Ryles when she and her boyfriend, at the time, were fighting. "That's what makes her special."

Almost became a nurse

Originally from Wenatchee, Ryles graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in education in 1965 after changing her major from nursing during her senior year.

"I was always [deciding] between being a nurse or a teacher," said Ryles, whose mother was a registered nurse and her father a career educator.

"I'm glad I wasn't a nurse because if I had lost a patient it would have killed me."

She was assigned to Roosevelt a few months after graduating, but didn't want to go.

"I didn't even want to come here," she said. "I pleaded with the personnel to switch me."

Ryles was concerned about the rumors she heard like "how stuffy" the school was.

"The teachers didn't talk to me for the first six months I was there," Ryles recalled.

But things turned around after a fellow teacher realized that her childhood crush was Ryles' father. After that, she was welcomed into the faculty.

And she's been a student — and teacher — favorite since.

"She is the glue to the fabric in that department," said Elnora Hookfin, a vice principal at Roosevelt who has known Ryles for 38 years. "I don't know what we are going to do without her."

Ryles also has taught science, English, math, food and nutrition, child development, home furnishings, independent living, and apparel and textiles, her most popular class, where students learn to stretch their clothing budget by designing and sewing their own clothes.

Robin Ogburn, who teaches independent living and child development at Roosevelt, is a former student of Ryles' and will take over the apparel and textiles class next school year.

"The last time I took sewing was 40 years ago from [Ryles]," said Ogburn, who plans on recruiting parent volunteers to help out with the class. "I'm going to try to uphold her legacy, but it's going to be hard."

She'll have help from Ryles, who said she plans to come back and help out as a volunteer.

"I'm amazed at her energy," said Marilyn Sizer, a language-arts teacher, who is also retiring this year after working at Roosevelt for the past 15 years.

"I'm surprised she's retiring, but I suppose it had to come sometime."

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