LIGONIER — In West Noble High School’s Room 506, bright red and yellow posters stick up on the walls, tapestries hang and shiny and empty desks awaited the arrival of new students for the school year.
Spanish teacher Donna Hoff waited, too. She worked at her desk before a new student open house with pinatas overhead, the ones closest to her gifts from former students and friends.
Hoff said she has to take down all of her posters and decorations before summer break and put them all back up before school starts in the fall. Usually, though, the school lets her leave her pinatas up.
However, she will have to take those down at the end of this year, too, since it won’t be her room anymore.
She’s planning on retiring after this year.
“Who knows, I might come in and sub a few days here or there or something,” Hoff said. “But, for the most part, this will be somebody else’s room.”
Hoff is leaving after 41 years in education, the last 32 of which were spent at West Noble.
After graduating from Valparaiso University, she went right into teaching, first at South Central High School in Union Mills in northwest Indiana.
“I got out of college in July, I turned 22 and by the end of August, I was teaching,” Hoff said.
Teaching isn’t just something Hoff picked as a job, though. She said that desire to help others learn has always been in her.
“I think I played teacher when I was in elementary school,” she said. “Isn’t that crazy?”
A knack for Spanish came naturally to her, too, after liking her English classes and taking her first high school Spanish class.
However, her plan changed slightly along the path of becoming a teacher, since she originally wanted to teach elementary school students, but eventually decided on high school.
“I just like little kids, but as I got older, I started thinking, ‘I really like to relate to my kids,’” she said.
Though she’s always taught in public schools, she did not always attend them. Growing up near Chicago, her parents enrolled her in private school until the family moved to Valparaiso for her dad’s job and she attended public school for the first time in seventh grade.
She said the way she grew up is a little different from how the typical family in Ligonier lives. Her neighborhoods were usually predominantly white, and with her father working in a factory and her mother staying home, the family was stable financially.
And she realizes many families in Ligonier don’t have the privileges she had. So she tries to smile and greet students in the hallway, even if she doesn’t know them.
“I know some of my kids that I teach miss out, so there’s got to be some bright spot in their day,” she said.
She realizes families work hard for their kids, and that work means sometimes parents can’t always make regular hours to meet with teachers or come to programs at the school.
“There are a lot of caring parents,” Hoff said. “Sometimes, they can’t always be present.”
Some parents also face the added challenge of not speaking English fluently. But Hoff steps in to translate when she can.
“You just see the reverence the parents have for their kids getting an education and sticking with it and making something better of themselves perhaps than what the parent had the chance to do,” Hoff said. “It makes my eyes water. So I know that there are plenty of parents that care.”
She also sees Ligonier’s majority Hispanic population as a special opportunity.
In her classes, there is a mix of students who speak Spanish as a first language in the home and students who speak no Spanish at all.
This combination lets her utilize lots of group work, making the students learn from one another. One student might have a better grasp on grammar than others, and some might be able to speak with more fluency or read better.
This way of teaching exposes those students who already speak Spanish at home to another way of speaking the language, possibly with different dialectical words or letting them brush up on writing and reading in Spanish.
“We’re not saying anybody is wrong,” Hoff said. “It’s just like in the English language where you have synonyms and antonyms.”
The sharing of cultures in her classes is also important. Hoff said her classes always try to celebrate holidays with Hispanic students, like Dia de los Muertos or quinceaneras.
Not only is she teaching other cultures, Hoff said, but she’s arming her students with open minds.
“How are you going to learn in the real world if you don’t keep your mind open and take in what people say? It’s up to you as that educated person to decide what you want to believe, but I think you need to get all the facts together,” she said. “This is what I’m hoping, in a large part, my class can do.”
The community, and the kids, are what have kept her so long, Hoff said, even after she got offers for other teaching jobs.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave West Noble,’” she said. “I don’t care that it’s a half hour for me to get there.”
Not too many of her students knew heading into the year that this would be their last with her as their teacher, but the ones who knew asked already if she would be at their graduation.
Hoff doesn’t have any set plans for her retirement yet, other than sleeping past 5 a.m.
“If I had a negative in my job, it would just be the hour I have to get up at,” she said.
She also wants to volunteer at nursing homes, maybe chatting with the residents there or playing games with them.
And it might still be possible to see her at school after this year as a substitute teacher.