The first math class Arne Lim taught at Palo Alto High School was in 1985, with about 35 students in the tower building — a campus relic that no longer can be used for its classrooms since there's no elevator.
He used hot and clunky overhead projectors to illuminate the day's lesson at the front of the class, and the pencil and paper — not the laptop — were so crucial, teachers would track how much paper was being used because at times they had to pay for it themselves.
Thirty-five years later, approaching the final days of his career, the retiring math teacher can't imagine how he would have taught his class the old-fashioned way during the past year of remote instruction.
"If we didn't have computers, then the default would just be pencil and paper," Lim said. "There's no way we could have done that this year."
Lim is one of about 30 Palo Alto Unified School District teachers — all of whom have taught at the district between 20 to 50 years — closing a chapter in their lives after what some have deemed the most challenging year ever.
It's not just the technological challenges, which have been ongoing since the advent of personal computers and smartphones, that have made it hard. Teachers and those who stay in the field for so long, perhaps unsurprisingly, love to teach, but the pandemic made it incredibly difficult to effectively do so — no subjects or grade levels spared.
"On March 16 (2020), when we were told to go home, for the next few weeks, I was kind of depressed," Lim said. "I was wondering, 'How in the world am I going to do this?'"
Lim remembers how nervous he was when he started teaching at Paly. Twenty-two years old, fresh out of Stanford University's Teacher Education Program (STEP), he wondered whether he could challenge the students enough and get more out of them academically and socially since he had gone through the same education system and district only a few years earlier.
"That's one of the things I hope the younger teachers understand," Lim said. "They should take advantage of their youth and get to know their kids better and say, 'It's OK. I was there not too long ago, too, and I get it.'"
Math had a gravitational pull on Lim, but he didn't think to teach it until he was at University of California, Berkeley, tutoring his peers. When he did decide to pursue a teaching career, he knew he wanted to go back to his hometown of Palo Alto.
"I really had a great time coming through the Palo Alto district," he said. "And I really enjoyed my childhood."
Sue Duffek, who is retiring after being a district teacher for 37 years, most of them spent at JLS Middle School, knew earlier on that she wanted to be an educator.
Though she's currently teaching math, Duffek struggled in the subject when she was in junior high. That changed once she went to high school and took an algebra class with an instructor who really knew how to explain the subject.
"My ninth-grade algebra teacher — he just really struck me with the way he talked and the way he presented the material. I got everything right when he taught," Duffek said. "So I decided that's what I wanted to do."
In some cases, teachers flourish only after stepping into a position and district they initially couldn't predict for themselves.
For Jim Shelby, a Gunn High School teacher who will be retiring after 38 years, becoming a beloved theater teacher was pure serendipity. (He received the city's coveted Tall Tree Award in the Outstanding Professional/Business Person category in 2017.)
Shelby got his teaching credentials, also from STEP, in English and social studies. At the time, Palo Alto Unified wasn't hiring in those fields. But after a more-than-cordial informational interview with the district's head of personnel, Shelby shared his resume, which listed his fairly extensive theater experience. Coincidentally, Gunn High School's theater teacher, G. Robert Stockmann, was just about to leave after 17 years.
"I had no idea that a (theater) position even existed," Shelby said. "Man, was I lucky."
Denise Dauler, a teacher at Palo Alto Unified for 36 years, was drawn to teaching when she was interning at Hidden Villa and led K-5 students through its overnight programs. She was hooked and started her career at Jackson Hearing Center at JLS as a deaf education teacher.
"That was my initiation into teaching for the rest of my life," said Dauler, who went on to teach kindergarten for three decades. "I loved it."
Dauler applied to work at Palo Alto Unified, but like Shelby, she saw that the district was barely hiring any teachers. The year she was hired, the district only took in 13 people.
"It was a long shot," she said, feeling lucky that she snagged a job in the city where she and her husband lived.
Dauler started by teaching fourth-grade and then first-grade students and said she loved both experiences. But kindergarten? At first, she refused.
"I used to watch them in different assembly rooms and they just looked too little," she laughed. "They were doing weird stuff."
But Jody Harrier, a kindergarten teacher at Nixon Elementary School who had been Dauler's best friend since seventh grade at Wilbur Junior High (now JLS), changed her mind. Dauler's 32 years of teaching kindergarten at El Carmelo began.
The retiring Palo Alto teachers describe their work as an evolutionary process, especially due to the technological advances that morphed the tools of the trade and the needs of the students.
"As a teacher you've got to continually reinvent yourself because the kids are going to be changing," Lim said. "And the reason the kids are going to be changing is because the times are going to be changing."
The document camera replaced the overhead projector, which got rid of the need for acetate sheets and a special marker used to write on them — welcome "game changers" for teaching his subject, Lim said. But along with that and the Excel spreadsheet software came smartphones and on-demand media, which are some of the factors Lim feels have shortened students' attention spans.
As a result, he's changed the delivery of his teaching to maintain a grasp on students' attention, while working with longer class periods and a reduced number of classes each week, Lim said. He compares it to watching a sitcom episode that takes up a half-hour block but is really 22 minutes long with commercial breaks in between.
"The brain can only retain as much as the butt can withstand," he said.
Dauler has seen similar changes among her kindergarteners.
"Kids are coming in so differently — they didn't have such a worldly experience and have access to so much technology," she said. "The curriculum had to change to meet their needs."
But teaching out of a state-mandated manual, with less opportunity for individualization, was a huge adjustment for Dauler. She said she's learned to add her own creative flare to the lesson plan — one that emphasizes hands-on projects, group work as well as outdoor activities such as hula-hoop, hopscotch and jump rope over constantly turning to an iPad or a Smart Board (an interactive whiteboard).
Still, working with computers and online software is unavoidable even in kindergarten. By third grade, children will have to be technologically competent because most of their tests are conducted electronically, Dauler said.
"I wouldn't say it's worse; I would just say the times have changed so much and what's needed for children to be well-educated has really changed," she said.
Looking back at how she delivered curriculum over the years and how she might have done things differently, Duffek said that she would have taken advantage much earlier of the tools offered online, such as the Google Suite apps.
But no seasoned educator, no matter how much they've adapted to the new tools and methods of their job, was prepared for the past 14 months, when the technological learning curve shot up like a vertical line almost overnight.
"Every teacher has had to really scramble to learn how to teach remotely," said Shelby, who teaches Theater 1 at Gunn. "That has been one of the greatest challenges of my career."
Shelby recalled how the school's production of "Romeo and Juliet" was shut down right before opening night on March 13 last year, after people suspected there would be a statewide stay-at-home order.
Because theater is highly dependent on physical spaces and presence, Shelby had to learn how to teach it over Zoom. It was a monumental task for him, but it didn't stop him from both teaching and putting on a remotely developed production.
One of the ways Shelby took advantage of the digital medium has been to utilize the live-background features on Zoom and by turning to a play that's heavily dependent on monologues. In the fall, Shelby was able to lead a school production of "The Laramie Project," which revolves around the 1988 murder of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.
"It's essentially all monologues," Shelby said. "We did it live on Zoom with digital backgrounds and it was really quite effective."
As restrictions loosened this spring, students were able to gather outside to develop their latest production of the Broadway musical comedy, "Something Rotten." But large theater audiences are still prohibited at schools, so Shelby turned to a medium he wasn't entirely familiar with: film.
Here, the old adage that the teacher becomes the student rang true. Since Shelby isn't familiar with editing software, his tech savvy students became responsible for filming and editing the entire production.
"I've learned the importance of letting go and letting students own it," Shelby said.
The movie is set to premiere May 21.
Beyond the lessons that were drilled into them by the pandemic, district teachers also expressed lessons learned over the decades from working with students.
For Duffek, being patient with her students and not jumping to conclusions was critical. For example, if a student has her head down and hands below the desk, Duffek learned that it's not always the case that the student is on her phone; she could be working on her calculator.
In her nearly four-decade career, and particularly during the last year under the pandemic, Dauler said, listening to her students to understand their needs has been important.
"Kids especially need you to just be there and not (to) demand but to really listen and be flexible with what their needs are," Dauler said. "Because they say a lot in very many ways, not just in what they say."
Dauler said she had always planned to retire around her age at 61 — soon to be 62 in July. She also could have easily retired a year earlier to avoid the stress of teaching during a health crisis. But the pandemic in fact motivated her to stay one more year.
"I still felt like I had a lot to give," she said. "And I wanted to be a part of the solution to the problem of COVID and not sit on the sidelines and watch."
After the pandemic, Dauler and her husband have their hopes set on a big trip to Indonesia with a group to scuba dive. Afterwards, it's off to the British Virgin Islands for a sailing trip.
Shelby cited his age, 66, and personal family reasons for choosing to retire now. He's confident that his successor, Kristin Lo, who was a former drama student in Shelby's class and also currently teaches theater at Gunn, will be successful and make his departure feel less abrupt.
The next chapter in Shelby's life is to be determined. With his retirement, however, Shelby feels he has more time to pursue his other passions as an actor and musician.
"Teaching is a magnificent career, but it also takes up so much time," he said. "So I think I'll have more bandwidth for the first time in a long time and I'm excited to see what I do with that bandwidth.
Lim, who is 58, said there were several reasons for choosing to retire now. Having to take care of his sick parents who both passed away within the past four years was "physically, intellectually and emotionally draining," he said. Lim thought about retiring a year earlier because of it.
"But when the pandemic hit, I was like, 'Do I really want to go out under these conditions?'" Lim asked himself.
Now, with an early retirement package the district offered, or a "golden parachute," Lim said, it seemed like the right time to retire.
For the first six months, Lim will take time off, but he's currently taking an online course through Fuller Theological Seminary. Ever since he was in his 20s, when at times he doubted whether he wanted to be a teacher, Lim said he dabbled with the idea of going into ministry. He hasn't yet determined whether he'll become a church leader, however.
"God's gonna guide me on that one there," he said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.