Long-serving Shawnee Mission teachers retiring this year reflect on abrupt ending to careers

SM West teachers Lisa Benge (back left under balloons) and football coach John Stonner (wearing Vikings helmet) reflect on the abrupt ending to their teaching careers. Photo courtesy Lisa Benge.

After decades of service several teachers in the Shawnee Mission School District are retiring. But with schools shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic these teachers won’t get the usual fanfare of a send-off.

We asked some of these educators to share what it’s like leaving a profession they have dedicated years to — without being able to say goodbye to students and colleagues in person. The retirees also filled us in on plans for life after teaching.

Heather Sommer — Ray Marsh Elementary

Heather Sommer is retiring from special education at Ray Marsh Elementary. Photo courtesy Heather Sommer.

This year marks Heather Sommer’s 14th year at Ray Marsh Elementary, 21st year in the Shawnee Mission School District and her 40th year as an educator.

It took her breath away when she learned she couldn’t return to school or retire surrounded by students and colleagues, but she adjusted to it.

“I really wasn’t looking forward to a big fanfare; I feel that in my career, I’ve had enough attention,” she said. “That’s not really what I’ll miss, although I do think that celebrations and rituals are important. They help us to transfer from one part of our life to another, to make those changes, to have our goodbyes, to have our tears.”

She started her career in New York and taught in North Carolina and Missouri before coming to Kansas. As a learning specialist for grades 4 through 6 at Ray Marsh, Sommer has had “wonderful and remarkable memories” helping students with learning disabilities.

After retiring, Sommer plans to visit with family when it’s safe to do so. She plans to return and see everyone if school opens in the fall. She and her husband, Bob Sommer, are planning to stay in the Shawnee Mission area.

Lisa Benge — Shawnee Mission West

Lisa Benge is retiring as a social studies teacher from SM West. Photo courtesy Lisa Benge.

Social studies and American government teacher Lisa Benge is retiring this month after 38 years in Shawnee Mission schools.

Most of her American government class students are seniors and she’s also the senior class sponsor. With school being closed the rest of the academic year, it’s been hard not to be able to say goodbye to students and colleagues in person.

“The ending here is not at all what I wanted,” she said. “Not seeing those kids and being able to say goodbye for the last time is the hardest thing. That’s why we went into teaching: It’s so fun to teach them, hang out with them, talk with them, see them grow, interact.”

She recently visited school to pick up her things and walked into her classroom for the last time.

“I got tears in my eyes because it will never be my room again,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s hard.”

A 1977 SM South graduate, Benge’s first teaching job was at Hocker Grove Junior High in 1981. She took time off as a new mother, then returned to teaching at Westridge Middle School for a couple of years. She has taught at SM West since 1988.

After retiring, Benge hopes to have a party when it’s allowed, perhaps with some live music by Perpetual Change, musicians who are her former eighth-grade students. She plans to spend more time with her grandchildren and enjoy vacationing in the family cabin in Minnesota. A resident of old Leawood, Benge may start substitute teaching, which softens the transition.

Her message to students: “You are all unique and you all have so much potential. Use that potential and have fun.”

Janel Cates — Shawnee Mission East

‘That has been probably the hardest because it was so abruptly ended; I didn’t have all that time to prepare mentally for it.’ Janel Cates taught for 35 years in the Shawnee Mission School District. Pictured above, Cates teaches her class while dressed up for Monday’s ‘Harry Potter’ theme. Photo credit Ava Simonsen, The Harbinger.

As a family and consumer sciences teacher at SM East, Janel Cates is retiring after 35 years in the Shawnee Mission School District.

Retiring this way is not what she pictured, because she lost time to reflect on those last moments in her classroom.

“That has been probably the hardest because it was so abruptly ended; I didn’t have all that time to prepare mentally for it,” Cates said. “When you’re a teacher, it’s all about the students, and I don’t have much contact with the students anymore. It’s strange.”

Cates will miss hearing her students say thank you at the end of each lesson.

“That meant so much; I always thought that was so thoughtful for them,” she said.

Her first teaching job was at Broadmoor Junior High in 1981. She held a variety of roles teaching home economics, fashion and other courses at SM Northwest, SM West and SM North, as well as Trailridge Middle, before landing at SM East.

Cates started the fashion design program at the Broadmoor Technical Center (formerly Broadmoor Junior High) around 1986 and worked there for several years during her career.

“That was probably my very favorite job ever,” she said, adding that through her career in Shawnee Mission, she was able to fulfill her lifelong dream of teaching sewing skills to students at each school where she’s instructed.

She hasn’t made plans to mark her retirement, but she did start a teaching scrapbook recently; focusing on that project will help her reflect on her memories in school. After retiring, she will probably find a part-time job or other non-teaching work.

John Stonner — Shawnee Mission West

After 33 years in teaching, John Stonner is retiring as a business teacher from Shawnee Mission West.

Stonner is also a coach for Vikings football. He misses not seeing his students every day, and he feels sorry they are missing out on school life, especially the seniors.

John Stonner. Photo courtesy Amy Morgan.

“If you were a baseball player or running track, you prepared all year for your sport and you don’t have it,” Stonner said. “And the prom, the senior send-off, that’s just something that these kids didn’t have.”

A product of Shawnee Mission schools, Stonner started his teaching career in 1987 before transferring to SM East in 2001 and SM West in 2011.

He particularly enjoyed his financial literacy class, which provided hands-on learning for how to budget and invest.

“I’m going to miss a lot of things for years to come,” he said. “There’s some great kids at West. But I got things that I’m going to look forward to, to overcome that.”

After retiring, Stonner will move to Georgia to be closer to family.