Wheat Ridge’s favorite history teacher is retiring after 40 years — and she’s still learning from her students – The Denver Post

Stephanie Rossi is that teacher. You know the kind.

The 61-year-old Wheat Ridge High School educator hops on school desks when she’s excited. She wakes sleeping students with a squirt gun. Three couches serve as alternative seats in her classroom.

Her reputation is so legendary, kids who haven’t even reached high school cross their fingers to one day receive her homework assignment. Former students stay in touch with her 20 years after graduation. She’s known as Rossi Woman or Mama Rossi.

This was supposed to be Mama Rossi’s “year of lasts” — the culmination of her 40-year teaching career, of which she spent the last 26 years at Wheat Ridge High. The pandemic, spurring a rapid transition to remote learning and the closure of school buildings in a bid to ease the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, had other plans.

“Somebody took a picture of me on my last first day,” Rossi said. “My last parent teacher conference. Last homecoming. When we got into March and there were rumors this might happen, nobody thought it would go the rest of the year. But the lasts just stopped.”

Rossi, like many teachers across the country, is forced to bid adieu to the great passion of her life from her kitchen counter, her energy and full-body teaching style crammed into the four walls of a video conference streaming from her laptop.

“I feel like I’m on the ‘Hollywood Squares,’ ” Rossi said.

Initially, Rossi mourned the anticlimactic fizzle to what should have been a grand exit full of hugs and in-person celebrations, but a former student put it into a perspective that healed the heart of the longtime history teacher.

“I told her, ‘What did you expect?’ ” said Melanie (Holt) Adams, a 2000 graduate of Wheat Ridge High. “‘You’re a history teacher. You get to go out with a historical pandemic. Not everybody gets to retire that way. You don’t get to retire the normal way because you’re not a normal teacher. You’re an extraordinary person and an extraordinary teacher.’ ”

Rossi taught through the Challenger explosion. She remembers the fear in the classroom during the AIDs epidemic. She was a Jefferson County teacher during the Columbine tragedy. Now she closes out her career with a pandemic.

Since Adams’ counsel, Rossi has a new outlook on her historic departure. She is grateful to be with her students during a chaotic time in the nation, giving them her best.

“She did for me what I have done for students in the past when they’re stuck and they can’t move,” Rossi said. “It’s one of those exchanges where my students become my teachers. They teach me something every day.”

Rossi embraced the rapid switch to remote learning as best she could, insistent on continuing live classes via video chat. Class begins with 25 push-ups to get everyone moving. Rossi mailed cards to each of her students, letting them know how much they mean to her. She prioritizes mental health.

“I can see their faces looking back at me,” Rossi said. “They’re bewildered. I think some are depressed, sad. I’ve had a few kids contact me to talk outside of class. I make it known we can talk.”

Adams is a testament to Rossi’s genuine offers to be invested in her students’ lives.

Since graduating 20 years ago, Rossi has tailgated with Adams and former students for Wheat Ridge High football games, attended students’ weddings and been a highlight at class reunions.

“She’s changed my life,” said Austin White, who took Rossi’s class in 2012. “I remember coming into high school, I knew I wanted her as a teacher.”

White recalled learning about American imperialism with Rossi, donning a crown and scepter, walking along his classmates’ desks pretending to take them over.

“When the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, my friend raised his hand and told her the news, and she stopped class to go tell her teacher friends around the hall and just let us have a few minutes to celebrate,” White said.

Although celebrations and goodbyes won’t be the same, the academic year is quickly coming to a close. The school year ends in a couple weeks. Rossi plans to bring a friend to help her pack up her time capsule of a classroom, complete with years of photographs of her students adorned on the walls.

She looks forward to being Wheat Ridge High’s graduation speaker at a delayed commencement ceremony in August.

“I get the privilege to say goodbye to my school and this senior class,” Rossi said.

Finally, Rossi feels at peace with her decision to retire this year.

“You never really know what kind of impact you’re having on students,” Rossi said. “You’re planting seeds along the way, and I just love watching that come to fruition. To my students of 2020: It’s been an honor to be your teacher. I am so humbled by your trust and your love. I can’t imagine retiring with anybody but you. I love you and congratulations to the class of 2020. And you’ll be alright. You’ll be OK.”

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