English teacher Penny Vadla, who delivered the commencement address Thursday at Ninilchik, is retiring after 28 years at Ninilchik School.
Photo by Hal Spence
After 28 years as an English teacher and a cross country coach at Ninilchik School, Penny Vadla is retiring.
“It’s a monumental loss for our school,” Ninilchik Principal Terry Martin said. “Very few people in today’s world have either the luxury or the opportunity to complete a career in one setting in any industry.
“While she did have a few teaching assignments before she came here, she has been here 28 years.”
Vadla made one-year stops in Massachusetts, Arizona, Oklahoma and the Bush village of Emmonak before settling down in Ninilchik. Vadla said her original plan was to keep traveling, but she became hooked on Ninilchik.
“I came here and sat on the bluff up by the church, and I knew this was a place I wanted to spend some time,” Vadla said. “Even though I thought I would continue to travel, I found a wonderful community down here.
“There are fantastic kids and it’s a great atmosphere. You’re sort of your own boss, even though there is a principal, restrictions and mandates. It’s a nice place to make a difference.”
At Ninilchik, Vadla, who mostly teaches at the high school, has had a chance to watch students grow from kindergarten all the way through graduation. 2006 graduates John Chihuly, Brendan Cuffe, Alicia Oskolkoff, Jennifer Bartolowits and Angela Singh are five of the latest examples of students that have attended Ninilchik all the way through.
It also is common for former students at Ninilchik to come back and teach at their alma mater. Over the years, Vadla said she has had seven or eight students return to teach at Ninilchik. Some of those returnees have since moved on to other jobs.
“Some went into teaching probably because they wanted to be a better teacher than me,” Vadla said with a laugh.
Vadla said that while it has been fun being part of a tightknit community, the situation has its pros and cons like anything else. She said that while it is great to intimately get to know students, that can be a drawback when students take advantage of that familiarity.
“I’ve been really strict,” Vadla said. “When we’re having a blast we’ll go flat-out crazy laughing, but when we’re working we’re working.”
Martin said that as an English teacher, Vadla has been very involved with the analytical writing assessment of the district and with Caring for the Kenai.
“Sometimes teaching is not so rewarding, but when a student comes back and says they got a better grade on their English paper and thanks you for all the hard work and for being hard on them, it’s a nice feeling,” Vadla said.
Eric Skjold, a 1981 graduate of Ninilchik and a math teacher at the school, said Vadla has a personality that gets people to like her. She then uses that to her advantage as a teacher.
“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Skjold said. “That’s kind of her technique. She has a fun side. She makes everything an enjoyable process, even rewriting an essay that has already been written two or three times.”
Vadla gave the commencement address at Ninilchik’s graduation on Thursday.
“She directed part of her speech to each of the individual graduates last night,” Skjold said. “That sums up her relationship with the kids. She knows each one, and she’s known them well for several years.
“She wanted them to know that in a very real way they are leaving home.”
Vadla used the same technique to build up the cross country program. When she started out, the team had just one or two runners. Vadla one year was able to attract 26 students to the team, a huge number for a high school of about 80.
Ninilchik is a Class 2A school, or school of 50 to 100 students, but it competes with Class 3A schools, or schools with 100 to 400 students, in region and state meets. Vadla’s teams had runners finish second in the state and finish second in the region several times by one point, but Vadla never won a region meet or had a runner take state.
Vadla said some of the close misses by her team hurt at the time, but looking back those close misses have lost their sting.
“I can’t tell you that I have made more of a difference standing in front of a class and telling the class to open to page 34 than I have as a coach,” Vadla said. “It’s at a different level with those kids. It’s a good teaching moment.”
Vadla said her retirement has made her reflect on coaching and why it was worth spending all those hours away from her family.
“I coached because I love the sport,” Vadla said. “I coached because I hoped I could build character. It’s a chance to teach somebody how important and vital they are. If you attain what goals you set, you can really make a difference in what you do.”
Vadla likes running so much she was not averse to going on runs with the team, although she said that recently her knees have slowed her down a bit. She said she will miss running with the team through the forest with the autumn leaves carpeting the floor.
In the beginning, Vadla consulted sources on the nuts and bolts of coaching cross country like how to build strength, speed, hydrate and do various workouts. Over time, though, she has built her individuality into her coaching style.
Singh, who was the lone senior on the team this year, tells a story that sums up Vadla’s individuality. In Singh’s junior year, the team was scouting the course before the Anchorage Christian Schools Invitational when some geese flew overhead and made some noise.
Vadla told her runners that if they listened real hard, they could hear the geese saying, “Go Ninilchik. Go Ninilchik. Run. Run. Run.”
“Sure enough, when we were running we could hear the geese,” Singh said. “And we all ran faster because we thought it was so funny.”
Singh said she was in kindergarten the first time she met Vadla. Vadla walked up to Singh and pinched her on the cheek. Singh said she grew closer to Vadla when Vadla helped her deal with the death of her grandmother in sixth grade.
“She pushed me to be a good writer and to express myself,” Singh said. “It was a good opportunity to grow up and mature.
“One thing I really respect is that she isn’t afraid to push. In cross country, you’d feel like you were going to die and she’d say, ‘If you feel like you need to walk, do it. But you don’t need to.’”
Singh also said Vadla has taught her to be open to different ideas and to not be afraid to make mistakes.
Vadla lives in Soldotna and will continue to be a presence at cross country meets, especially because her son will run cross country for Soldotna High School next season.
“In no way has she lost any steam or slowed down,” Martin said. “She was working the students up to the last minute. The kids were saying, ‘If I was retiring, I’d already be packing it in.’ She tells them that’s not her way. Never has been, never will be.”
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