Retiring School Counselor Pat Staebell Has Impacted The Lives Of Thousands Of Children
Pat Staebell, the only school counselor Northeast Elementary has ever known, retired at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
The LeMars native has been a fixture at the school since 1991.
“I still get up every day with the same excitement and vigor about wanting to be here but it just comes to the time where you take the next step,” Staebell said. “There’s no regrets.”
As a young educator, Staebell was content with his job as an elementary school teacher in the Carson-Macedonia School District, but a mandate handed down in the 1980s by the Iowa Department of Education that required all school districts in the state have a K-12 school counselor got him thinking about a new career path.
Staebell approached Carson-Macedonia Superintendent Gary Funkhouser and told him if the district intended to hire a counselor, he’d like to be considered for the position. If he could be guaranteed the job, Staebell would go back to school (at his own expense) and get his counseling degree and certification.
Funkhouser accepted Staebell’s offer.
Staebell was enjoying the one-on-one time he was spending with the same class of students every day, but he saw the school counselor position as an opportunity to have a positive impact on a greater number of children.
“I was feeling the need to affect more kids,” he said. “I did miss it initially, that attachment you make with that one group of kids. But, I was kind of seeing just with the experiences I had in my classroom that the issues out there were enormous.
“My second year of teaching first grade, I had a girl whose dad was sent to prison for 30 years and a couple years later, a student whose older brother committed suicide. Those things are always there.”
In hindsight, Staebell said it’s surprising that most Iowa school districts didn’t have counselors at the elementary level until the 1980s mandate was handed down because the state has had a reputation for being on the cutting edge of education matters.
In 1991, Staebell was offered the first elementary school counselor position in the Glenwood Community School District. He was given the choice of working at Northeast Elementary or West Elementary. At the time, both schools had K-5 classes.
“When they gave me the choice, I said I’m going to take Northeast. They kind of gave me the grand plan of over the next couple years having all K-2 kids being here,” he said. “That seemed like the best fit for me and it worked out great.”
One of Staebell’s first tasks in Glenwood was helping educate administrators and staff members on the role and responsibilities of an elementary school counselor. It wasn’t the career consulting role of a high school counselor the district was used to at the time.
“With elementary counseling, it’s more of a proactive approach,” Staebell said. “It isn’t reactive in that you’re reacting to a crisis, even though there were some of those. At the elementary level, you want to give the kids the tools and the knowledge to take with them after they leave this building.”
At Northeast, Staebell spent most of his time in the classroom interacting with the children in a group setting, although he was always available for some one-on-one time with individual students when necessary. Maybe it was friendship issue or a child struggling with a situation at home. Most of the children he met with on an individual basis were referred by teachers or parents.
There were also situations when Staebell personally observed a situation where he thought a child might need some individual counseling. It he sensed something was simmering, he addressed the child before it erupted into a larger issue.
“There’s also a component of small group counseling,” Staebell said. “Maybe there’s a group of kids whose parents are apart. We’ve had groups of kids whose parents are apart. We’ve had groups of kids who had a parent incarcerated. We had groups of kids who’ve lost a parent.
“The small group stuff can be effective.”
Staebell said he made it a point to try making a connection with all the students, which isn’t easy to do when there are 500-plus children in the school.
One of the best decisions Staebell said he made as a counselor was to bring a therapy dog to school one day in 2001.
“I had a therapy dog in here for the past 22 years,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most effective, best things I’ve done educationally. The benefits have been enormous.
“They come in here and spend time with this warm, shaggy animal and it’s just amazing. We wander the halls in the morning before school and it’s like a magnet.”
Adults, too, enjoyed having a dog in the building, which surprised Staebell at first.
The counselor’s role at Northeast has evolved over the past 30-plus years as family dynamics and societal issues have changed, but Staebell’s underlying message of “kindness” never wavered. It was a message that’s resonated with many of his former students well into their adult lives. One of the Staebell’s greatest satisfactions is seeing his former students and reminiscing about their classroom time together at Northeast.
“I have to say, for my own personal benefit, that’s probably what gives me the most joy,” he said. “Seeing those kids, not just at Homecoming, and remembering some of the things we did. I use a lot of puppets, games and humor. Kids learn amazing things when learning through humor and laughter. Then to have some 37-year-old, I call them a kid, say to me, ‘Remember when we did that? Do you still do that?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah.’”
Staebell noted an encounter he had a few years back with a former student who is now an adult.
“I had a guy at Homecoming quite a few years ago laughing and joking about the puppets,” he said. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time. He gives me a big ol’ hug and he steps back, gets all serious. He says, ‘Do you still tell that fuzzy story?’ I said,
‘Yeah, it’s kind of silly.’ He gets all serious again and says, ‘Don’t you ever stop telling that story.’ It about ripped my heart. We both had tears.”
Staebell joked that he decided to retire before he started having grandchildren of his former students in his classroom.
He’s looking forward to spending time in retirement traveling with his wife DeEtte and camping in their fifth-wheel camper. They have “a long list” of places to visit.
He’s definitely looking forward to retirement, but admits, he’ll miss the everyday interaction with the children at Northeast, a school that’s been a huge part of his life for the past 32 years.
“To see the kids in kindergarten and then having to say goodbye to them as a group of second graders that I’ve got to know is always special ,” he said. “Very special.”