Relationships key to Stenftenagel’s success

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jasper High School Special Education Teacher Rick Stenftenagel helps sophomore Dylan Heeke, right, with math as sophomore Katelyn Ridener works next to him at the school in Jasper on Thursday. Stenftenagel is retiring after 41 years as a teacher and said he will miss his students most of all. He is looking forward to spending time with family upon retirement.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — Building authentic relationships is Rick Stenftenagel’s superpower.

Whether it was in his special education classroom with his students, in collaborations with his colleagues or with his wrestlers through his many years coaching, connecting with others in a way that shows them they are respected was a hallmark of the Jasper High School special education teacher’s 41-year career. Now, as Stenftenagel prepares to retire at the end of this school year, he has a notebook page filled front and back with the names of people who he connected with over the years that contributed to his success as a teacher and wrestling coach.

Bobby Schitter is one of the names on that list. Schitter and Stenftenagel both work for Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools, are cousins and coached the high school’s wrestling team together for more than a decade, Stenftenagel as the head coach and Schitter as the assistant coach. Looking back at their years of coaching, Schitter said Stenftenagel’s ability to build rapport with his team stood out. Students often came to Stenftenagel to talk about the challenges and successes both inside and outside of the wrestling ring. Stenftenagel was always happy to celebrate with or support them.

“He took everybody under his wing,” Schitter recalled. “He had a lot of respect for [the students]; they had a lot of respect for him.”

Wrestling held a prominent place in Stenftenagel’s life. As a high school wrestler under coach Joe Rohleder, Stenftenagel was the first wrestler from Jasper High School to make it to the state competition. He still remembers placing fourth. Then, he wrestled in college at Indiana State University where he pursued a degree in education. After college, he and his wife, Cathy — whom he met at ISU — settled in Dubois County where they raised their three sons, Aaron, Derick and Kirk, who also wrestled for JHS.

For the first couple years of his career, Stenftenagel worked for the special education cooperative that serves all Dubois County schools. Then, 39 years ago he was hired at his alma mater. Shortly after, he became the wrestling coach and coached for 35 years. During that time, he built a wrestling family that included the students in his special education classes, whether that meant they wrestled, too, or helped manage the team.

Jasper High School junior Adam Nordhoff insists on giving Special Education Teacher Rick Stenftenagel a piece of his roll at the cafeteria at the school in Jasper on Thursday. In addition to teaching special education, Rick helps manage the students in their cafeteria jobs.

“I always got my kids involved with it,” Stenftenagel said. “I always thought that was a good luck charm.”

Stenftenagel’s coaching days are over now, but he still referees wrestling matches in his free time.

His passion for wrestling was rivaled, perhaps, only by his passion for working in special education. Teaching seemed to be Stenftenagel’s destiny. Growing up the oldest of Joe and Martha Stenftenagel’s children, Rick said he often felt like he needed to teach or coach his younger siblings. Then, when he was in eighth grade, Linda Rohleder, his math teacher, let him teach class while she was out of class for the day. Stenftenagel still remembers leading the lesson on angles while the principal sat in the back of the class observing.

“I was so impressed with my classmates listening and asking questions,” he said. “I enjoyed that part of it so much that I thought, hey, I really like teaching. And if [Rohleder] had the confidence in me to be a math teacher at that time, and the principal had confidence in me, I said I want to be a teacher.”

Special education, too, found a place in Stenftenagel’s mind at an early age. One of his uncles suffered from polio and was physically disabled due to the disease. Stenftenagel often worked on that uncle’s farm, and the experiences there left him with a desire to help others. And just like with the wrestling team, Stenftenagel was quick to turn the special education department into a sort of family.

“He seems to always have our back,” instructional assistant Tina DeKemper said. “He cares about us, and that’s important.”

DeKemper has worked with Stenftenagel for 20 years. Once he retires, she said, the department will miss his years of experience. On a personal note, DeKemper said, she’ll miss the camaraderie the two of them have built over the years. Teaching special education is a demanding calling, she said, and the two have built strong bonds as they’ve navigated challenges over the years.

Jasper High School Principal Brian Wilson will miss Stenftenagel’s ability to form personal relationships and connections.

“He has a heart of gold,” Wilson said. “It’s unique to come across a guy with his passion and authenticity for his students.”

As Stenftenagel gets ready to end his education career, he knows he’s going to miss being at JHS as much as they’re going to miss him. Most of all, he said, he’s going to miss his students. Working with the special education students, he said, was his favorite part of the job.

“I really think they’re close to the big guy in the sky,” he said. “They give you hugs, and those hugs are just precious.”

Although he will miss the work, Stenftenagel knows it’s time to retire. It’s been 41 years since he began his career, and there are a lot of younger teachers coming up that are better equipped to teach in today’s high-tech and fast-paced education world. His biggest pieces of advice for upcoming teachers and coaches: Always do the right thing and help others whenever you can.

“I think we were put on this earth to help others,” he said. “And if you do the right things you’re going to win in some form.”




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