Editor’s note: During the next several days The Spokesman-Review will highlight teachers in local school districts who are retiring.
As Central Valley High School Principal Kerri Ames said goodbye to the class of 2022, she offered some wise words to guide on them on their way.
“Find something you love, and make it your life’s work,” she told the graduates earlier this month. “If you do that, every day will hold rewards for you and not just be a payday.”
It was great advice, but the words were coined by longtime Central Valley counselor Larry Bernbaum, who is retiring after 43 years in education.
All but eight of those years were spent at Central Valley, where Bernbaum taught English and language arts before becoming a drug and alcohol counselor and finally a guidance counselor.
Bernbaum also served as junior class adviser, and curriculum coordinator for math and English in a career that began in 1984.
That Bernbaum, an Ohio native, made it to Spokane at all was a combination of chance and passion. Originally from Cleveland, he made two trips to a Boy Scout ranch in New Mexico and vowed to return for good.
Reminded that New Mexico doesn’t exactly resemble the Inland Northwest, he responded that the beauty of the Rocky Mountains extends across the West.
“I just loved it there,” said Bernbaum, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University before taking a teaching job at a high school in Boise.
“But frankly the state of education in Idaho was as sad as it is now,” said Bernbaum, who soon found himself in a master’s program in counseling at Eastern Washington University.
Bernbaums’s interest in counseling was sparked while working as a resident adviser in college.
By 1990, he was a counselor at Central Valley. “I had a knack for it and loved it,” said Bernbaum, who found fulfillment in helping students.
“I think that for a student who is undergoing something – and emotions are different for every student – for them to be willing to trust me enough to tell me what’s going on, I’m deeply honored by that,” Bernbaum said.
A high school counselor’s job has never been easy. But the pandemic added a new layer to the common stresses of classwork, social connections and peer pressure.
“COVID has been a huge factor,” said Bernbaum, who like other counselors noticed an upsurge in teen stress when learning went remote in the spring of 2020.
“There are a great many kids whose education has been severely impacted by being home so long,” said Bernbaum, who added that many struggle expressing why they are feeling anxious.
“And how many are getting anxious about getting shot?” Bernbaum said, not long after the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Of course, all that stress is amplified by social media.
“Thirty years ago, one girl might say to another girl: ‘You’re ugly.’ And we deal with it. But with social media, nobody has to say that to her – some other girl posts something on social media and she can see that post 24/7.”
In retirement he plans to travel, spend more time in the outdoors – perhaps see the world by volunteering with the International Red Cross – and look back on a career that he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I would say that I think what I learned early on is the most important element of my work and my career is that I have loved my work: the kids, the staff, the parents – and it has, for the most part, never seems like a chore, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”