“I always just enjoyed school,” said Kunkel, who retired from teaching fifth grade in the Solon Community School District this spring after 35 years in the field. “I can’t remember not wanting to go to school. It seemed a good fit for me.”
Kunkel, 57, grew up in Solon but didn’t decide what she wanted to do with her life until after she graduated from high school in 1972.
She had two aunts who were teachers, had volunteered in the Iowa City schools and even took some education courses at the University of Iowa to get a taste before settling on a career.
“I had no idea I wanted to be a teacher until college,” she explained. “I just really enjoyed working with the kids in Iowa City and decided, ‘You know, maybe I’d like to be a teacher.’
“It just clicked with me.”
She graduated from UI in 1976 with a BA in education and a reading endorsement, and quickly accepted a position with the Lisbon schools teaching fifth and sixth grade reading.
While still in college, however, she married another Solon grad, Greg Kunkel, whom she had been dating since after high school.
Although happy in the Lisbon schools, Ginny decided she wanted to be in the same district her children attended, and in 1980, she applied for a position in Solon, where she had student taught (under Cheryl Comerford).
When she began with Solon, the fifth grades were still housed in a large open space in the Lakeview Elementary media center. “They had cupboards up instead of walls,” she recalled. “We did a lot of team teaching, but it was really difficult to have lessons, to have something going on in a classroom next to you.”
Eventually, the district enclosed the individual classrooms. “It was one of those things that comes around in education, and you find out it’s not quite as productive as you thought it’d be.”
Fifth grade, however, was just what she wanted it to be, and she taught at the same level for the rest of her time in Solon.
“I love kids at that age,” she said. “They’re very easy to motivate, they’re intelligent in their own way and they’re innocent. They’re still kids.”
Although her passion was always with reading, Kunkel enjoyed teaching all subjects. “It was always fun to do social studies and science, to bring that in to the day,” she observed. “It doesn’t get boring.”
There were always new kids to teach or a new curriculum to implement, and in one instance, a new building and a middle school philosophy to embrace.
When the Solon district first decided to merge fifth through eighth grades in a middle school setting, Kunkel was apprehensive.
She was initially concerned about her fifth graders being thrown in with the older students, especially those in seventh and eighth grade, but she grew to really love it.
The fifth graders were mostly separated from the older grades, had their own activities and were being treated more maturely.
“I think the fifth graders were ready to be more independent,” she said. “They loved having lockers– they were so excited about that.”
Part of her enjoyment of teaching has come from those changes, and from the administration and the community that allowed it all to happen.
“I’ve been really fortunate over the years to have really good administrators to guide me and to let me grow as a teacher,” she said. Solon principals were willing to allow her to try new things over the years, like incorporating the novel into the reading curriculum.
And the community of Solon has always been there for her.
“In Solon, the parents have always been respectful to me,” she noted. “In Solon, whatever you ask for, you get.”
In this district, it’s rare for a parent to miss a conference– communication is good and the kids work hard. “It’s a positive place to work,” she concluded.
“I just think it’s the group of people that we have that live here,” she added. “In all the years that I’ve taught it has remained a small school. It’s a small town. And everybody knows everybody and people are willing to help you.”
Now that she’s retired, though, she may be the one doing the helping.
The last day of school wasn’t too hard because she wasn’t saying good-bye– she knew she’d see them again. “I can sub if I want– they need lots of volunteers,” Kunkel observed.
But when she began writing a thank you to the middle school staff– that was tougher because of the relationships she built with others over the years.
The future holds lots and lots of time with her grandkids– two in Minnesota and a set of 1-year-old twins currently living on her rural Solon farm.
She won’t miss the long hours, or the weekends spent checking papers, but she knows there will be opportunities for her to help if she wants.
“Whenever I need my kid fix,” she said, “I can come back up.”