The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When David Daniel started teaching for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District at Seward Elementary in the 1986-87 school year, the building had one Macintosh computer that could be checked out, he said.
“It was like carrying a small, portable refrigerator almost, but it wasn’t that big,” Daniel said.
Move to the present day, with Daniel retiring after 34 years with the school district, the last 32 at Mountain View Elementary in Kenai.
The new coronavirus pandemic has closed schools, meaning Daniel spent the last seven weeks before his retirement doing remote emergency learning for his fourth grade class, much taking place on laptops, tablets and smartphones nothing like a portable refrigerator.
“He’s a lifelong learner and he was that kind of guy right through the distance learning thing,” Karl Kircher, principal at Mountain View, said. “He learned all the platforms and he was meeting with his class multiple times a day.
“He wasn’t going to be denied. He kept learning until the bitter end.”
What’s stayed the same?
“No matter what the newest technology is, or the best math program series, or whatever comes with a global pandemic, teachers that have in their heart the love for children make the difference,” Daniel said. “That’s why I said, for years, my tagline has been they will not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Learning from some of the best
It’s been said the older one gets, the wiser one’s parents become. Apparently, that doesn’t stop even when one is retiring after a career of 34 years.
The day after being interviewed for this story, Daniel called and left a message. If the reporter had the time, Daniel wanted to say more about his parents.
Sam and June Daniel were both educators. The family settled in Seward in 1971 as David was entering the fifth grade.
“I got into education to help people, but if I think back long enough, my parents definitely left an impression on me when I was young,” Daniel said. “My stepmom, too.”
June Daniel was a home economics teacher. David still remembers her as the type of teacher students always came back to see. She died of cancer in 1979.
Mary Daniel, David’s stepmom, was a business teacher at AVTEC and then a typing teacher at Seward High School.
Sam Daniel was a high school guidance counselor who still lives in Seward and will turn 90 on June 2.
“It’d be great for my dad to read the impact he had on my life as well as the life of others as an educator, counselor and friend,” David said.
Daniel did not stop his quest to reach kids at what he learned from watching his parents. Kircher, who has been principal for six years, said as society and education changed, Daniel changed right along with it.
“One thing I super appreciate about him is I came in as this principal wet behind the ears, and I go to work with this guy who’s a 26- or 27-year veteran, and I had my philosophy, and I thought, ‘OK. Here goes. How’s this going to go?’” Kircher said. “He was incredibly willing to listen to whatever would be good for kids.
“He had this major passion, ‘How can I teach better? How can kids learn better?’”
Daniel said he was very lucky to have Roger Sampson as principal in Daniel’s two years at Seward Elementary. Sampson was named Alaska’s Commissioner of Education and Early Development by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003 and also served for Gov. Sarah Palin.
“He had extremely high expectations and a very specific way of writing lesson plans,” Daniel said. “He really always encouraged us to look for what’s newest and best, for what’s going to help you be a better teacher.”
From there, Daniel ticks off Mountain View principals Rick Boudreau, Thomas Thorpe, James Dawson, John Cook, Norma Holmgaard and Kircher. The veteran teacher has a little to say about what he learned from each.
“This school was constantly changing, but it’s always been the philosophy at this school to do what’s best for kids,” Daniel said.
Of course, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same as teaching methods came and went.
“You guys keep changing the playbook, but that’s not what matters,” Daniel said. “It’s the players that matter.
“I still love kids. I still believe children need people to speak into their lives that are constants — at least for a year.”
Daniel served the longest under Dawson — from 1994 to 2007, according to the district’s “Education on the Kenai Peninsula Vol. 2.”
“He had this amazing rapport with students,” Daniel said of Dawson. “As principal, he knew every kid’s name in the school within the first two weeks.”
Daniel said Dawson told teachers they couldn’t learn unless they take risks and try something new. This led to Daniel, who always loved teaching science and math, to help start a districtwide science fair. To this day, Daniel still appreciates it when former students mention the event.
An example of all of those things
So if it’s the players that matter, what scouting report would colleagues give on Daniel?
Belinda Smith has taught second grade across the hallway from Daniel for the past two years. Smith, then Belinda Espy, also had Daniel as a teacher at Mountain View for fifth grade in 1994-95.
“Is it possible to be gracious, kind, caring and strong, assertive, engaging and passionate?” Smith said. “Dave is an example of all of those things.”
Later, Smith adds: “He’s also incredibly funny, passionate, engaging, sarcastic and hilarious, but many have painted him as a stoic person.”
What does it all add up to? Somebody who is sought out by students and colleagues.
“I remember probably from at least third grade, a couple of years before I could have him in fifth grade, that I desperately wanted to be in his class,” Smith said. “He was one of those teachers where you always wanted to be in his class.”
Nicole Cunningham, a fourth grade teacher at Mountain View who has worked with Daniel for 12 years, also went to Mountain View as a student but never had Daniel. She also remembers him as a teacher students wanted to have.
“One of the reasons is the whole school knew he was doing such cool things,” Smith said. “One thing I paid attention to was all the science units he did, with yardsticks and sticky notes out. He also was doing math equations with hands-on learning in the hallways.
“It wasn’t like sit down and be quiet. Whatever he was doing in school had such purpose and was so engaging that I wanted that as a student.”
Having seen Daniel from the lens of both teacher and colleague, Smith has thought a lot about what makes him special.
“The first thing I’ve noticed as a colleague about Dave is he has such a strong presence,” Smith said. “Maybe it starts with the fact that he’s incredibly gracious and kind. The strong presence he had as a student and colleague always made me want to seek him out if I wanted advice.”
Smith said Daniel is the exact same way at Kenai Christian Church, where both worship.
Perhaps that’s why Cunningham said she has never detected anything fake about Daniel.
“The biggest thing is he’s so authentic,” Cunningham said. “He walks the talk. When he believes in something, he lives his life that way.
“He’s kind, thoughtful and always thinking of the underdogs in the staff meeting. He wants to make sure everybody is heard.”
Daniel combines that authenticity with a work ethic as famed as his whole-hearted laugh from the belly. Cunningham, along with Sienna Griggs, helped Daniel get up to speed on platforms needed for remote emergency learning.
“He didn’t want his students short-changed,” Cunningham said. “He gave 110 percent on everything he did until the end.”
Kircher said Daniel will be missed as a rock-sold anchor for instruction — a teacher just as willing to learn from fellow teachers and he is to teach them.
“I’d go in that door as an administrator and just marvel at what he was doing,” Kircher said. “Part of an administrator’s job is an education coach, and he’d take that coaching.
“I knew that class was in the bag — that kids were making progress and feeling loved.”
The final drive
With Daniel’s final days at Mountain View ticking away, Kircher faced a problem typical of this pandemic. How was the staff supposed to get together to show Daniel what he had meant to them?
The idea was to get teachers and staff to line the road May 19 on Daniel’s 10-mile commute from his home on Pirate Lane to Mountain View, which is on Swires Road off Kenai Spur Highway.
But would the teachers and staff go for it?
“They’d have to be willing to stand by the side of the road at 7:30 in the morning with a sign,” Kircher said. “Everybody will show up and get cake and ice cream at those parties, but they’d have to be willing to sit on his drive to school.”
Kircher said he sent out a Google Doc for people to sign up to occupy certain sections of road and it was full almost immediately. He said about 45 people signed up.
The next trick was to get Leslie Daniel, David’s wife, on board.
“My wife is a very good secret keeper,” Daniel said. “I couldn’t have been a teacher as long as I have without her.”
Leslie got David to leave at just the right time. She also convinced him to put on a tie, just like he would on a normal teaching day.
When Daniel left his house, he immediately thought he had a problem on his hands, a problem Cunningham, knowing Daniel so well after 12 years, had predicted.
Leslie had gotten David all fired up to make it to school at an exact time, and now there appeared to be a car broken down at the end of the block.
“One of the things we talked about when we did the party for him is we knew if he saw somebody on the side of the road, he’d stop to help,” Cunningham said.
As Daniel approached the would-be distressed traveler, he saw a familiar face with a sign and quickly realized what was going on. He’d see other familiar faces with signs every quarter mile on the way to work.
“By the time I was on Bridge Access and up that hill at Arby’s, I rolled down my window to wave and yell and I felt cold air streaming into my eyes,” Daniel said. “If I said that’s what caused the tears, that’d be a fib.”
Kircher said Daniel has joked for years about retiring. Now that Daniel has finally decided to do it, Kircher admits to a bit of lingering disbelief.
“He’s going to miss it,” Kircher said. “He’s the master at something. You get all that feedback from kids and thrive on watching kids grow. I don’t know where else you get that feedback.”
Daniel agrees that he will miss it.
“It’s still probably the best profession in the world, and the most undervalued profession,” he said. “It was just time to try something different.
“I loved it. I always wanted to do what’s best for kids. When it comes down to it, it’s about having quality individuals in the class who take pride in what they do. What matters is that heart of that individual trying to reach those children to be better people and to become captains of their own ship.”
Daniel, who has taught many parents and then their children at this point, will still get a reminder of all the children he’s reached, as field trips his class took to Marathon Petroleum’s Kenai Refinery showed.
“I’d just laugh,” he said. “‘Oh, I taught him, him, him, him.’ They would all say, ‘Hi, Mr. Daniel.’”
As for Mountain View, Daniel shows off some of his trademark humility in assuring the school will be fine.
“They understand the heart and soul of Mountain View is doing what’s best for kids,” he said. “They are so much more capable and smarter than I was, it’s ridiculous.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District retirees with 15-plus years:
David Daniel, Mountain View Elementary, 4th grade teacher, 34 years; Steven Klaich, Nikolaevsk, math and science, 32 years; Gregory Reser, Skyview Middle, custodian, 32 years; Jeri McLean, Paul Banks Elementary, 31 years; Carole Nolden, Connections Homeschool, administrative secretary, 31 years; Clark Whitney, Skyview Middle, secondary language arts teacher, 30 years; Debbie Tressler, district office, administrative secretary to the superintendent/board of education, 28 years; Korenna Ortiz, Soldotna Elementary, special education intensive needs aide, 28 years; David Carpenter, Kenai Alternative High, social studies and physical education teacher, 27 years; Edith Staley, Redoubt Elementary, food service manager i-s/food service cook/kitchen assistant, 27 years; David Michael, Tustumena Elementary, 4th grade teacher, 26 years; Kent Peterson, Soldotna High, band and choir teacher, 26 years; Deborah Sounart, Kenai Central High and Kenai Middle, band teacher, 26 years; Pamela Rugloski, Homer High, mathematics teacher, 25 years; Anisia White, Voznesenka, ELL tutor, 25 years; Robert Clucas, Kenai Central, head custodian, 25 years; Deanne Pearson, River City Academy, mathematics teacher, 24.5 years; Daniel Verkuilen, Kenai Middle, science and art teacher, 24.5 years; Joseph Rizzo, Nikiski Middle-High, language arts/drama teacher, 23 years; Kevin Harding, Kenai Alternative High, special education resource teacher and general education teacher, 22 years; George Richard Kelso, Nikiski North Star Elementary, physical education, 22 years; Theodore Riddall, Kenai Central, physical education, 22 years; Kellie Steiner Kelso, Nikiski North Star Elementary, school secretary, 22 years; John Pothast, district office, director innovation and strategic planning, 21 years; Heather Swanson, Soldotna High, language arts, 21 years; Lynn Temple, West Homer Elementary, special education intensive needs aide, 21 years; Lorraine Hibpshman, Skyview Middle School, read 180 teacher, 20 years; Beth Fowler, Soldotna High, guidance/career assistant, 19 years; Karen Fine, Fireweed Academy, kindergarten teacher, 18 years; Linda Hampson, Homer High, school counselor, 18 years; Hionia Konev, Kachemak Selo, school secretary, 18 years; Darla Wales, district office, administrative secretary, 17 years; Priscilla Mott, K-Beach Elementary, food service cashier, 17 years; Geraldine Habighorst, Soldotna Elementary, food service cashier/kitchen assistant, 17 years; Carol Thomassen, Seward High, school secretary, 16 years; Randall Neill, Soldotna High, assistant principal, 15 years; Emily Sims, Kenai Central High, family and consumer science teacher, 15 years; Stacy Owens, Susan B. Anthony, custodian, 15 years; Deanna Leslie, district office, administrative secretary/director secretary, 15 years.