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A positive career: Denfeld’s Jill Lofald retires after 31 years

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Denfeld English teacher Jill Lofald keeps it fun as she makes a point with the students in her English 9 class Thursday morning. The students were working to come up with the questions that would be included in a final exam on the book "To Kill a Mockingbird". Lofald is retiring after teaching at Denfeld for 31 years. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Denfeld English teacher Jill Lofald give instructions to the students in her 9th grade English class Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Caden Rathke (left) and Janaya Miller, write down five facts from the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" during an exercise in Jill Lofald's class recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Jill Lofald, who's been teaching at Denfeld High School for 31 years, will be retiring this month. Here she works with her English 9 class on preparations for a final exam on the book "To Kill a Mockingbird". Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Denfeld High School teacher Jill Lofald once misspelled a word while writing on the chalkboard as a principal evaluated her teaching performance.

It was the beginning of her career, and he could have "destroyed" her for her mistake, she said recently. But he was gracious, and he built up the good things he saw. Lofald took the example to heart, making it a part of her classroom philosophy.

"I was not going to be critical of mistakes that (students) made," she said. "Instead, I was going to focus on the positive things that they did."

Lofald is retiring after 31 years at Denfeld, leaving a legacy of energy and positivity in the classroom and as a speech and debate coach and theater director.

But the Duluth native isn't giving up all of her educational passions; she'll continue her work on the speech and debate teams.

"(She has) this wonderful energy that anyone in any career would hope to have," said Matthew Pursi, a former student who now teaches English at Denfeld. "You wish you could bottle it and sell it. And she just exudes it."

Over the years, Lofald has used that liveliness for the well-being of her students.

"You can tell when you meet her that she has a lot of energy and she cares so deeply about the students," said Keeli Gustafson, a student in Lofald's ninth-grade honors English class. "She lets you know that she's there for you."

Lofald teaches communication and English classes at Denfeld.

"She knows her stuff," Pursi said. "When it comes to communication, when it comes to speech, when it comes to just life lessons, she shows her students that she cares. That's one of her greatest parts, that compassion."

When teaching, Lofald tries to connect the curriculum to students' lives.

"The kids might not remember the story we read or the essay we wrote, but they will remember the relevant information or where it's going to appear in their life," Lofald said.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth, a former student of Lofald, remembers this tactic well.

"She had us listen to a John Cougar Mellencamp album to have the here and now illustrate a point in literature," Gronseth said.

In Lofald's classroom, music can be mixed with personal stories to create a relationship with the books they are reading.

"I connect to my life as a way to help them share their life," Lofald said. "I think kids sense in me a safety and a sense that they can be vulnerable and honest in their answers, in their willingness to answer. I tell stories."

Lofald started by telling stories for a very different audience. She went to the University of Minnesota Duluth and studied theater, with no intention of teaching until she discovered she had a talent.

"It was my theater adviser, when I would TA (assistant teach) in his classroom or direct plays; he would say, 'Jill, you've got a gift with students,' " Lofald said.

She started working in Barnum and Esko schools, teaching communications and theater, and she transitioned into teaching English. But when Esko didn't have an opening, she set her sights on Denfeld.

"I just naively walked into the principal's office in July," Lofald said. "I didn't even know enough at that age to go to the human resources department downtown."

Lofald was hired to fill in a temporary position.

"This principal took a risk with me," Lofald said. "I was really only hired for six weeks, and then six weeks turned into a semester and then that semester turned into 31 years."

She leapt into the job, teaching English, communication and theater classes, while directing plays and coaching speech and debate, using her theater background to motivate the students.

"Her level of passion for teaching kids how to communicate is amazing," Denfeld Assistant Principal Marcia Nelson said. "She teaches public speaking and she believes in it."

Lofald emphasizes the importance of public speaking in the classroom as well as the speech team.

"We gave a lot of speeches in class," said Autumn Zierman, another English student. "You don't usually get to work on that in a ninth-grade class, and it's a fundamental skill."

Lofald never really stops coaching her former students on how to communicate.

"Whenever she hears me speak in public, she gives me pointers," Gronseth said.

Lofald is so passionate about Duluth students learning communication skills that she has advocated for making a communication credit a requirement in the district.

Lofald and her family intentionally decided to live in West Duluth, the community where she teaches.

"I love seeing my students in the community," Lofald said. "If there's a kid in my class who seems out of it, unfocused, sometimes I'll see them in the grocery store, packing up bags for their mom, and smiling, and I think, 'They're gonna be OK.' "

This connection with the community has only been strengthened by her long-term career at Denfeld.

"Denfeld has been good to me," Lofald said. "The feeling of retirement is so much stronger when you've spent your whole career in one building."

Her loyalty to the school has been tested. In 2011, when Central High School closed, Lofald had the opportunity to choose her position in the school district.

"There has been so much joy with my colleagues here, with my students here, it wasn't even a choice that I wasn't going to be at Denfeld," Lofald said.

Now that her time at the school is coming to a close, she has refocused her energy on continuing the speech and debate programs.

"I'll get to spend time during the day coming up with announcements, visiting classrooms when teachers invite me, and to have better connection," Lofald said. "I can be a better face for speech and debate."

Lofald will also spend more time with her family.

"My daughter is having a baby in a month," Lofald said. "I'm going to transfer right out of being a teacher in the classroom to being the teacher of a grandson."

With so much passion and energy, Lofald said she surprised her colleagues and herself with her decision to retire.

"I never had any epiphany that I had to retire," Lofald said. "But, if I read the quotes of famous people, they always say 'leave when you still love it,' and so it just seems natural for me to go now, because I still love it."