The artwork-lined hallways of Muncie Central High School (MCHS) have been Lisa Letsinger’s second home for 22 years. Since January 2000, when she rolled textbooks classroom to classroom on a cart to teach accounting and personal finance, Letsinger has rooted herself at the heart of MCHS and in the hearts of her students.
At the end of the school year, Mrs. Letsinger’s classroom door will close for the last time when she retires from MCHS. But, while room 258 may not be plastered with colorful handprints when students return next fall, Letsinger said she doesn’t want her students to feel as though she is leaving them, because they have become her family.
Letsinger taught accounting and finance in her classroom for years, she said, but her students left with more than notes on math lessons and a better understanding of taxes. She taught them the value of respect, she said, and how to reach their highest potential and believe they could.
At her feet below her desk sits Letsinger’s purse, big enough for her to stuff binders of lesson plans and students’ assignments inside. Right next to it is a stack of thank you cards, graduation party invitations, wedding invites and personal, handwritten letters from hundreds of students she’s taught over the past two decades, all with a story to tell about how Mrs. Letsinger changed them for the better.
‘The Guinea Pig’
Letsinger graduated from Ball State in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. For 10 years, she worked as an accountant in corporate accounting for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Tipton, Indiana, before starting her family and moving back to Muncie, where she began substitute teaching accounting and finance classes.
When the principal of one of the schools Letsinger was substituting at approached her and told her to get her teaching license, Letsinger said she told the principal it was something she had always wanted to do, but it was the ’80s, and the job market was saturated.
Letsinger took a leap to pursue her dream anyway, and in 1997, she became the first Ball State student to transition to teaching by taking courses at the graduate level to earn a teaching degree.
“I was actually the guinea pig,” Letsinger said. “I graduated in the winter in 1999, and five days later, I signed my contract [at Muncie Central]. I've been here ever since, and now, hundreds of thousands of students have gone through to transition into education [at Ball State].”
The Cart Teacher
Letsinger set her passion for teaching aside for ten years while she did accounting, she said, but when she graduated from Ball State in 1999 with her teaching degree, she said the timing couldn’t have been better.
“I think that God aligned me with the right people at the right time,” she said.
Dick Daniels was principal of MCHS at the time, and he conducted Letsinger’s interview when she applied and sent her name to the board for approval. The only concern anyone had, she said, was how high school-aged students would accept a 37-year-old teacher and connect with her. But, within a few months, Letsinger officially became a teacher at MCHS.
“I had absolutely no problem with my connection with my students,” Letsinger said. “I'm very proud of all my students.”
But, she didn’t have a classroom to teach them in. For her entire first semester of teaching, Letsinger carried her stack of textbooks up and down hallways between class periods.
“Finally, one of the ladies that worked in here went, ‘Let me see if I could find a cart,’ because I had to go upstairs,” Letsinger said. “I'm carrying all these textbooks around with me … It was crazy.”
Letsinger sets high expectations for every student, she said, and she makes sure they are aware of every one of them. It’s her philosophy to reach a level of mutual respect in the classroom, as it’s one of the most effective ways to help her students see what they are capable of achieving.
“I demand respect. I have high expectations for all my students, and I harp on them and harp on them and harp on them until they conform, so to speak, and then we can become friends,” she said. “But I have to gain their respect, and they have to gain mine. It's a two-way street, but when I demand that they do these things, then they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can be something. I am going to be something.”
Daniels often teases Letsinger for being the “best hire he’s ever had,” but there are distinct reasons he says so, and one of them, he said, is the control she had over her classroom.
“She made an immediate impact in several different areas, and she’s a great teacher,” Daniels said. “She's just very organized and well versed in her subject area of business and got along great with students, but didn't let them get away with anything, which is a hard balance to make for a teacher, but Lisa was very good at that. She pressed them to do their best and held them to high standards, but they liked her, and that's a good combination.”
In her second year, Letsinger transitioned from teaching off of a cart to a workplace split between two rooms. When she had her own classroom to teach in, Letsinger said, she made more of an attempt to dress like a teacher and not so much like an accountant.
“I had bought pants because I didn't really know how to dress,” Letsinger said. “I didn't know what the expectation was. I knew that you should dress nice, but I didn't know because I was used to wearing suits.”
Letsinger wore her new pants early in the school year, to both dress appropriately and display professional workplace attire for her students to learn how to properly dress. When she walked into school that day, she said, one of her students, Randy Ruble, stopped her in the hall.
“He goes, ‘Oh, look at Ms. L! She's sporting some new trousers,” Letsinger said. “I looked at him — I forgot to take my tags off.”
To this day, Letsinger said, she remains in contact with Ruble, and she received a Facebook message from him in January.
“He said, ‘You always played a huge part in my life, and I would not be the man I am today or the person I am today without you,’” Letsinger said, “‘and I want you to be a part of my wedding.’”
It is moments and relationships like those with Ruble, Letsinger said, that make leaving MCHS so difficult.
“I’ve done so much in the building to encourage my students to be better people,” Letsinger said, but she has made sure her desire to teach students the importance of workplace professionalism stays even after she is gone.
During her time at MCHS, Letsinger started hosting etiquette dinners for her students to provide an opportunity to learn professional manners, improve their workplace attire and develop communication and networking skills.
“We called it a mocktail,” Letsinger said. “We'd have a cocktail party down in the student center, and all of the staff here would dress up as the waiters. They would all have trays, and we would make hors d'oeuvres and drinks. I would invite community members to come in, and the kids would come all dressed up. I want the kids to learn, it was all teaching.”
After hosting her first etiquette dinner, however, Letsinger said she realized something she was shocked she didn’t think of sooner.
“Some of these kids have never even been to a nice dinner,” Letsinger said. “I've never seen anything like that, so not only did I invite people, I also then started asking people to donate dress clothes.”
Before she knew it, Letsinger had two to three closets in MCHS filled with suits, pantsuits, dresses and shoes to give to students in need of nicer attire.
“People were like, ‘Oh, I've got some extra things that I'm not wearing,’” Letsinger said. “The clothes might not be their style, but at least they get an idea, and now all these kids are getting dress clothes.”
Whether her students know she cares about them from day one or it takes a few weeks to develop a relationship, Letsinger said she prioritizes making sure every student knows she cares about them just as much as she does teaching.
“Every kid knows that I care about them,” Letsinger said. “Sometimes, it might take a little bit for them to figure things out, but they finally do … and some of the things that I’ve done outside of the classroom built the rapport that I had with a lot of kids.”
One student, in particular, built a strong connection with Letsinger, so much so that they consider one another family. He was one of Letsinger’s students, and every day during lunchtime, he came down to Letsinger’s classroom, sat at the chair she always keeps beside her desk and told Letsinger “his story.”
“His name is Michael … and he was basically living on the streets,” Letsinger said. “So, I would go home, and I talked to my husband about him all the time. Finally, Pete says, ‘Why don't you just see if that young man would want to go out for pizza with us tonight?’”
Letsinger asked Michael to join her and her husband, Pete, for dinner, and Michael told her he would meet them at the restaurant. He didn’t want them to know where he was living, Letsinger said.
“He and Pete hit it off, and, next thing I know, Michael’s coming to live with us,” Letsinger said. “When he came, he said, ‘I don't want your money. I just want somebody. I just want to know that I have family and people here in Muncie that love me and care about me when I'm in the military.’”
Michael stayed with the Letsingers until he joined the military, and Letsinger said she and Pete “are still mom and dad to him.”
“He's 38, and he lives in Michigan,” Letsinger said. “He went from selling drugs on the south side of town, and he is now, I’m proud to say, an attorney. He is a [Judge Advocate General's Corp] officer for the United States Government and works for the Defense Department.”
Michael has three boys, the oldest of which — a sophomore in high school — still calls Letsinger “Grammy.”
There were connections Letsinger had with other students, she said, that didn’t end as happily. Another student of hers also often used the chair beside her desk to vent to Letsinger about his life outside of the classroom. He was heavy into dealing drugs, Letsinger said.
“I would always tell him to just stop,” Letsinger said, “and he said, ‘I can’t. I’m too deep in. They’re going to get me.’”
During one of their conversations, Letsinger said she remembers him telling her to mark his words: He would be dead by 21.
“He got shot in the back three days after he turned 21 at the Village Pantry getting his mom some bread and milk,” Letsinger said. “I will never forget that, but I tried.”
When she went to his funeral, his mother approached Letsinger out of everyone in the room.
“‘You must be Ms. L.’”
When the Time is Right
When Letsinger decided to go into teaching, she said all the pieces of her puzzle fell into place at the right time. In the same way, the pieces are falling into place letting her know it is time to retire.
“When I first came here, kids were so eager and open to learn, and they knew that their education was their only way to get themselves jobs and to get themselves further ahead of where they were coming from,” Letsinger said. “And, somewhere along the way, we have lost this sense of pride in education, but I don't know when we lost it. It just happened.”
Letsinger has spent the past 22 years in MCHS’ hallways watching her students’ passion to learn “dwindle.” When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, she said, is when she “watched it hit rock bottom.”
“It wasn’t teaching anymore,” Letsinger said. “We were just like, ‘Give them grace. It's okay. Just give them a grade and pass them.’ Now, we're all about passing them so our school looks good, but we're not preparing kids for real life at all.”
There was a lack of taking responsibility for actions, Letsinger said, including meeting deadlines, but she doesn’t blame her students. After transitioning to online classes, she said everything changed, and when her students could no longer see her expressions and grasp class concepts, their motivation to finish their work began to fade.
“There was no connection [with students] whatsoever,” Letsinger said. “But now, once you start something, it’s hard to go back.”
But, Letsinger said, she has “checked off a lot of boxes” to retire, and the changes she has experienced in her classroom is only one of them. Letsinger has a daughter named Lauren living in Australia with her husband David and their two children. Letsinger hasn't seen Lauren in three years, “and all I want to do is hold her, and I want to hold my grandbabies, and I can’t do that while I’m here.”
Lauren, pre-med and biochemistry graduate, is coming back to Indiana in June, and Letsinger “can’t wait” to have her family again, as her other daughter, Ashton, 2013 accounting alumna, and her husband Phil live in Greenfield, Indiana, with their two children.
For the first time in nearly 22 years, Letsinger will have all the time in the world to spend with her family again.
What Teaching Taught Her
While Letsinger may have spent 22 years instructing students, there are things she learned from them while in the classroom, too. Teaching is a learning experience, like anything else, and Letsinger is leaving MCHS with lessons, just like her students.
“[Teaching] taught me patience,” Letsinger said. “It taught me that every kid can learn, but you have to be patient to let them learn. It taught me that I found my passion.”
Letsinger always knew she was good with numbers, she said, but it wasn’t until she started teaching that she found her real passion is connecting with kids and their parents in the community.
“I never in a million years ever would have thought that I would have this many kids reach out to me every day and say, ‘Mrs. Letsinger, I just bought my first house,’ ‘I'm getting married,’ ‘Mrs. Letsinger, You'll be so proud of me. I have 5000 saved in the bank.’”
At this point in her teaching career, Letsinger said she has taught so many thousands of students, she and her husband can’t go anywhere in the U.S. without running into someone she knows through MCHS. Her students cared about her like they did no one else, Daniels said.
“Boy, she’s going to be big shoes to fill,” Daniels said. “I know that's kind of cliche, but she will be. Someone needs to step in there with those same skills, talents and temperament. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don't have that temperament and the skills to guide kids, [you can’t] work with kids. They're going to need to find somebody with a lot of different skills to fill her shoes.”
But, even though she will no longer be teaching at MCHS, no matter where she is or where she goes, Letsinger said, she will always have students, and she will always be teaching.
“Everybody always tells you that teaching is a thankless job,” Letsinger said. “Sometimes, you have to give yourself a hug and pat yourself on the back because it is. It's a thankless job. But then, kids come down, and they do say ‘thank you.’ So, I will always be teaching.”
Contact Taylor Smith with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @taywrites.