Joi Stites looked around her classroom at the end of the school day. It’s a sunny afternoon in late April.

Not much has changed since 1979. Shelves were added one year. The carpet has been replaced twice.

The chalkboard at the front of the room could be considered an historical artifact.

“I think I’m the only teacher in the Northwestern system that has a chalkboard,” Stites said.

Dry erase boards, Expo markers, iPads and Smartboards have made chalkboards obsolete, but not in Stites’ first grade class at Howard Elementary School.

The students like writing on it, she said. They like the feel of chalk on chalkboard. Not many kids get that experience anymore.

The chalkboard remains, at her request.

Much like the board, Stites has been a mainstay at Howard Elementary, but there is a big change coming next school year.

After 44 years, all spent teaching first grade, at the same school, inside the same classroom, Stites is retiring.

All smiles

A day in Stites’ classroom begins with a hug and a smile.

It’s one way Stites puts into the world what she’d like to see — kindness.

She practices it herself, with her signature smile. The little things can go a long way, Stites said, such as making small talk with the person who bags your groceries. Some chit chat could make their day. It makes her feel good, too.

More than anything, she wants her students to be kind.

State standards are important but so is common courtesy and manners. Her students learn it all.

“I want them to learn to be good people,” Stites said.

Former students remember her hugs and smiles.

“She had the best smile of everyone I know,” said Kristin Candelaria.

Candelaria was once a first grader in Stites’ class. So was her sister, brother and her son Easton. Stites was Easton’s favorite teacher.

“I love, love, love having kids of kids,” Stites said. “It’s a sweet thing.”

It’s a point of pride for Stites, who considers her students to be just like her own kids.

“You’re proud when they have babies or are good parents,” she said. “Their success is my success.”

Candelaria teaches at Carmel Middle School. She’s hugs her students, too, because of Stites.

“I feel like that’s really important for kids, especially today, when that might be the only hug they get,” Candelaria said. “Always being friendly and kind, that’s what I got from her.”

Chad McCarter remembers the reading circles in Stites’ class. She even made vocabulary fun.

McCarter’s daughter Brielle got those same experiences, too.

“She was just as nice to my daughter as she was to me,” he said.

Being a parent of a child in Stites’ class means you’re involved. Stites makes sure of it.

For many parents, first grade is their first experience in having a child in school.

“We help parent the parent, in a way,” Stites said.

McCarter remembers placing sticky notes around his home as Brielle was learning to spell, something he picked up by being an involved first grade parent.

“She wants to make sure you’re successful as a student and successful as a parent,” he said. “She creates this environment that helps propel education into what you’d normally do at home.”

McCarter reminisced about his time in Stites’ class during a phone interview with the Tribune. He could be overheard telling his daughter that Stites was retiring.

A faint “nooo!” could be heard in the background.

Cool projects for kids and parents alike

Stites attended a job fair at Howard Elementary. She found the rural elementary school charming.

“I remember driving out in the country,” she said. “It was this quaint old school building.”

It was two weeks into the 1979-80 school year before Stites started teaching. Howard Elementary didn’t have enough students enrolled when the year began to warrant hiring more teachers. Then a few more students enrolled.

She started in first grade, and that’s where she’d remain. Teachers at Howard Elementary don’t get to choose what grade they teach, though they can make a request at the end of each year.

But it’s safe to say Stites has had a firm lock on first grade for at least a couple decades.

Maybe it’s her cheery personality, maybe it’s her education in psychology or perhaps it’s a teaching philosophy that holds true no matter the standard and is perfect for young learners.

Stites believes in the value of experiences. Students should experience what they learn.

It’s one thing to read about the lifecycle of a butterfly, but the lesson comes to life when a child can watch the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

That philosophy lends itself to a wide array of fun projects that former students remember, even as adults.

“I vividly remember being in first grade because Joi made learning so much fun,” said Lorne Balmer, who rattled off several activities from first grade including butterflies, growing pumpkins and making Christmas ornaments.

Candelaria’s son made the same Christmas ornaments as she did as a kid. They also both had their silhouettes drawn.

“She always did things as a mom I appreciated,” Candelaria said.

There was one day at school when Candelaria was sick and couldn’t go to recess. Instead, Stites let her help hide Easter eggs for the rest of the students.

“She’s always done these really cool things that I’ve never forgotten,” she said.

A lasting legacy

Stites took a moment to collect herself. The question simmered.

“Are you ready to retire?”

It’s a complicated answer. A little yes, a little no.

She has a granddaughter she’d like to spend more time with her. Her son works nights and could use some help.

Will future students remember she taught them, if she stuck around a few more years? Probably.

Will her granddaughter know that she was present in her life? Most certainly.

The rationale makes Stites okay with retiring. A new chapter awaits, hopefully with more travel.

There will be some learning curves, though.

“For 44 years, I get hugged 30 times a day,” she said. “I get told ‘I love you’ 20 to 30 times a day. That worries me a little. That’s going to be a culture change.”

Stites estimates she’s taught between 900 and 1,100 students in her career. Her impact lives on through those students.

Some, like Balmer and Candelaria, are impacting students of their own.

Balmer lives in Florida and develops homeschool curriculum for students with disabilities. He’s in the process of opening a school and previously taught at the elementary level.

It’s because of Stites that Balmer taught young students. While in college at Indiana University Kokomo, he took an internship where he worked in Stites’ classroom. He had to have two internships; one in line with what he wanted to do — high school English — and another in a field he wasn’t interested in.

But it’s funny how things work out.

“By the end of my internship with Joi, my major had changed and she sold me on elementary education,” Balmer said. “Joi taught me everything I know about being a teacher.”

Balmer still hears the wisdom Stites imparted on him years ago. “Are you making good decisions?” “Tell me why” and “Tell me more” are just a few of what Balmer calls Joi-isms.

He said Stites has a knack for correcting students without making them feel bad.

“They want to succeed; they want to do good,” Stites said. “There are no bad children, they’re just making bad decisions.”

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.

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