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Sprafka named teacher of year

Ron Sprafka has been a familiar presence in the halls of Rossman Elementary School in Detroit Lakes for some 23 years now.

Before he began shaping the young minds of Rossman fifth graders, however, he spent six years at Lincoln Elementary (which has since closed), teaching third grade, and also spending a year as a Title I instructor.

"This is my 29th year of teaching in DL... it's also my last," Sprafka says. "It's sweet sorrow, but that would be true no matter when I left. I have to quit sometime. To everything there comes an end... but there's a new beginning too."

Though he truly loves his profession, the Detroit Lakes native says now is the time for him to make his exit.

"I'll be 64 in September," he explains. "I had considered it (retirement) last year, but I needed one more year to think about it."

And it's a good thing he took that extra year. If he'd retired in 2005, Sprafka would never have had the honor of being named Teacher of the Year for Detroit Lakes Public Schools.

"It's the frosting on the cake," Sprafka says of the award, which was bestowed on him at an April 11 reception for all the nominees.

"It's a humbling experience, but very rewarding too. It was such an honor to be nominated, let alone to be chosen."

Sprafka says he experienced some "mixed emotions" as he went forward to accept the award.

"I told them I wasn't refusing the award, but... how do you choose just one (teacher) out of so many deserving people?"

Though Sprafka found out a few weeks ago that he had been nominated for the award, along with Rossman first grade instructor Rachel Pederson and Detroit Lakes High School special education teacher Deb Tucker, none of them had any idea who would be named the winner.

"It was a complete surprise," Sprafka says.

"If I had my life to do all over again, I'd definitely choose education as a profession -- I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. I love what I do. It's fun."

Sprafka views fifth grade students as being "the perfect age."

"At this age, they're so excited about being in school and learning," he says. "If you're having fun, they're having fun. You have to have the passion."

"I started out teaching secondary history and social studies," he says. "But I went back for my elementary certification... this is my true niche.

"It's so much fun, and there's so many different subjects."

Sprafka believes that in order to be an effective instructor, you have to be "part teacher, and part entertainer."

"You have to make them not want to miss school, because something fun is happening... I try to make things interesting, exciting and educational. Yes, learning is work, but it should also be fun. If they're having fun, they don't always notice they're working."

Though kids' social and school environment has changed drastically since Sprafka first started teaching, "the kids themselves really haven't changed," he says. "Kids are still kids."

"I'm going to miss them... miss watching the excitement build in their eyes when they finally understand a problem, and say, 'I get it!'"

One of the ways that Sprafka has tried to keep his students interested include dressing up in costume as Ebeneezer Scrooge every holiday season to present the Charles Dickens classic, "A Christmas Carol."

"I had a nightgown and hat made... I act out the whole thing,'" he says. "Reading the book and acting it out gives them total understanding of what is a complex story. It's a good four days (of instruction). It's exhausting... but satisfying."

In fact, Sprafka is considering coming back to the schools next year to reprise that performance. Some of his other "reenactments" have included dressing up in a World War I officer's uniform that belonged to his great uncle, each year on Veteran's Day.

"I try to dress up (in costume) as much as possible," he says. "It makes it more fun."

Sprafka also does a unit on Australia where he is able to use his own slides and authentic "props" such as a boomarang -- mementoes he gathered during the year and a half he and his wife Sandy spent teaching there before he moved back to DL.

"In Australia, the students wore uniforms, so I have the kids dress up (in costumes similar to the uniforms that were worn at that time) -- they get bonus points for it," he says. "I try to make learning as creative and fun as I can."

What it all comes back to, Sprafka says, is passion.

"A person should have passion for what they do, no matter what it is," he says. "If they don't have that, then they should find something else (to do)."

Sprafka says the reality of his retirement probably won't hit him until classes start up in the fall -- and he's not there.

"I'm not sure what I'll do that day," he says. "I hope to just kind of slide into retirement, get busy with hunting and fishing, have that extra cup of coffee in the morning and read the newspaper. After a while, I'll make some decisions about what I want to do next."

But at least some of those plans will include traveling with Sandy. Not just to see their two sons, Ron and Jim, but to see the seven foreign exchange students they've housed over the years -- including this one.

"We talk to them on the telephone six or seven times a year at least," he says. "If it's (host family and exchange student) a good match, you build an extremely close relationship. When they leave, you shed a lot of tears."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454