Why teachers teach: Mrs. Pagenkopf’s last year



Mrs. Pagenkopf teaches biotechnology to her AP Bio class.

For twelve years of their education, students meet new teachers and with that, new guides on the journey to find themselves: to learn, to uncover their calling, and to let it grow. However, in order to guide others they must first be guided themselves. This leads to the question: Why do teachers teach? 

   It’s certainly not for the money. I interviewed Mrs. Pagenkopf, an AP Biology and Chemistry teacher on why she became a teacher and why she has decided this was to be her last year of teaching. 

   Nearly three decades into her career, the pandemic, as with many other factors, unexpectedly changed her perspective of her career. She said, “It took the wind right out of my sails.”

   However, long before then, it seems the stars aligned for her to teach. “Everyone told me I should be [a teacher].” It was because of her natural affinity for working with kids and the ideal “people” personality. Furthermore, high school teens offered the perfect inbetween of ‘neediness’ and natural amiability. “I guess they were just more willing to have a conversation back and forth—that sparks me to teach differently.”

   She found her start at Oakbrooke for 14 years as a General science teacher, but it wasn’t the most optimistic start.  

   “When I first started teaching, I didn’t like it at all…my first couple years were pretty bad.” 

      Then after 14 years, the school district dissolved, leaving teachers with limited choices to stay or leave.

   “When it came to me, I didn’t have a choice to stay at Overbrook. Otherwise, I would have stayed there…So I went to Winslow and I had taken a maternity leave during that year…I went back for permanent subbing which turned into a full time job and then I… left and came [to Eastern].”

   Her time at Eastern started in the middle of a normal school year. She replaced a chemistry teacher after winter break and quickly chose to stay. “I love the student body… they’re diverse, they’re respectful,” she said.

   Then in the span of another 14 years she taught various levels of chemistry and biology, encouraging others to learn about the invisible intricacies of life that make up the visible wonders we call reality.

   She found the Goldilocks zone: “When I got to start teaching AP Bio, and could see that there were kids out there that were passionate about learning, as much as I, they kind of fed me to be a better teacher, and [I] really started to love my career.”

   Then the years flew by, every day excited to teach the eager with a new topic.

   Now, after nearly 30 years of touching the hearts of many young scientists she noted that she knew it was her time to go. Factors beyond the pandemic, like her daughter graduating, her health and wanting to fulfill her bucket list, she felt it was time to draw this chapter to a close. 

   In her new free time she plans to ride her horse, care for older family members, and of course take plenty of vacations during the other three seasons. “I’m just gonna enjoy myself,” she said.

   She’s had an amazing career and she notes how even though she wasn’t able to personally know all of her students yet she said her “heart bleeds for so many of them.”

   Eastern appreciates the work you’ve done for so many students for nearly a generation. In reflection of her journey she knew it was the kids that always brought her back and kept her going.

   “The kids are what make me come back. And just wanting to teach and inspire students to want to learn” I wish I could know them all on a more personal level, but it’s just something you don’t always have time to do.”

   Despite so little time, she still touched the hearts and minds of many students. Thank you, Mrs. Pagenkopf for helping so many use their curiosities to study the delicate balances of the environment, and leave your class knowing there’s always hope to make it better.