Dayton Elementary School Principal Joan Iserman looked fondly at a watercolor painting hanging on the wall of her office. “My daughter painted that,” she said. “My dad grew up in rural Wisconsin and attended a one-room school house in Trempealeau County — that was his school.”
Iserman smiled as she reflected on her father’s brilliance. “He was a biochemist,” she said. “He researched Vitamin K and launched this amazing science career that sent him around the world and back again.” Her father was one of the creators of the Warfarin drug which inhibits Vitamin K clotting factors. Iserman even has an old, wooden desk from the schoolhouse in the painting sitting in the corner of her office.
A lifetime later, Iserman is retiring from a 30-year career in education to return to her father’s aide. “My parents, who still live in Wisconsin, are at a point where they need support,” she said. “They’re in their mid-80s and need to make a transition. So we’re going to move them down to Arizona into a graduated care community.”
Iserman and her husband live in Elk River, but have a vacation home in Arizona. Eventually they plan to sell their home and live near her parents in Arizona.
“But one thing at a time,” she smiled.
In the Beginning
Iserman began her studies at Luther College but, after discovering her passion for speech and language pathology, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire because, at the time, Luther College did not offer that major. So she continued her undergraduate studies in Eau Claire and completed her bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders. She then attended grad school in Duluth and began her career in the Duluth Public School system as a speech and language pathologist.
After getting married in 1982, she and her husband, Blake, moved to Arizona and Iserman found work in the Albuquerque School District. But Iserman, an avid bicyclist, had long called Minnesota home and missed the beautiful scenery of the Midwest. So the couple returned to the land of 10,000 lakes. Iserman then worked in Apple Valley as a geriatric nurse, working with patients that had suffered stroke and required physical or cognitive rehabilitation.
But Iserman said, after the birth of her daughter, it became clear that the schools might be a better fit.
“I started at McKinley Elementary School in February 1985 as a speech and language pathologist,” she said. “At that time none of the schools had a lot of additional administrative staff other than a principal. There was a designation of a lead teacher and I stepped into that role.”
Iserman said she had great mentors at the school — then Principal Beth Makke and Rosemary Lawrence — who encouraged her to seek out administration. So she began to pursue her administrative license at St. Mary’s University. Back then the Anoka-Hennepin School District created internship positions so Iserman was working part time as a speech pathologist and part time as a paid intern.
Then, in September 1997, Iserman began as an administrative intern at Oxbow Creek Elementary School in Brooklyn Park. The following year she was appointed as a dean.
“Then eventually, they dropped deans and I became an assistant principal.” That was in 2003.
Then, as Iserman put it, she decided to “go for it” and applied for a principal position at Dayton Elementary. “And, well, here we are,” she said. “I’ve been here for nine years now.”
“When you stand back, you understand that what you treasure are really just these captured moments of working with children,” she said. “I’m going to miss the little things like the sound of stomping boots and the swish of snow pants as they come in the morning. Because when you hear 500 of them clomping in with smiles and you’re pulling the hats off of them to see who’s underneath you get to see that there’s so much eagerness to learn and it’s just refreshing.”
Iserman said that despite what the school board decides about facilities or programs or curriculum, the basics of education remain the same.
“We’re always going to teach kids how to read and how to do math regardless, but I think the things that never change are about safety — are the kids safe, are they eager to learn, are we motivating them to learn, do they have adults in their lives that help them feel secure so they can focus on learning — all of those things end up being the most critical. When it really comes down to it, it matters that we have the right people in place who really care and are committed to giving children that foundational security and comfort.”
As for the things that do change?
“Technology has just been a hoot. I mean, I spent the majority of my career without a telephone!” she laughed. “Now, we stream things and store information in the Cloud and we made the whole switch to Promethean boards.”
And Iserman said, come conference time, the exchange of information has changed, too.
“When I was a kid my mom would pick out an outfit to wear to conferences and listen to the teacher report on my progress,” she said. “There used to be this implicit trust without challenge. You’d never challenge a teacher, you’d only receive. Now I would say that it’s more of an exchange. There’s a difference in accountability.”
But, in spite of that, Iserman said all those bells and whistles don’t matter much. The foundational work of teaching children is timeless.
“I think parents want accountability for growth and progress, just as any parent ever did, but I think they also want to know that this is a safe place and that their kids are respected, encouraged and they have good relationships and friendships here.”
Iserman said she wants the new principal to know how important school traditions are in the Dayton community.
“One of the things that I know that I’ll want the new principal to know is that Dayton Elementary is a very unique school,” Iserman said. “This is a school that’s really rich and committed to tradition and rituals.”
The school always has a strong turn out for the Halloween Parade, the Santa Shop and school carnival.
“Even our Dr. Seuss muffin morning is well-attended,” she said. “This is what Dayton does. People look forward to those things and we just don’t change them because it’s something that’s expected and so well-supported. Those types of events allow families to come into the building and feel like it’s theirs and that they’re welcomed. It’s just a welcoming place that’s really rich in tradition.”
Iserman said, as a new principal, she came in with all these new ideas she wanted to implement. But, over the course of a few, short years realized she didn’t need to change a thing.
“I understand now that all these things serves a foundational purpose,” she said. “It gives the kids something to look forward to, something that they know. That grounds them and makes them feel secure.”
Iserman found comfort in knowing those traditions will hold true. She shared her appreciation of all the staff at Dayton Elementary School.
“I’m really proud of the staff,” she said. “I appreciate the differences of all of the teachers and what they bring to the table. There’s so much optimism in working with kids and we’re really investing in the future when we’re working to support them.”
Upon retirement, Iserman and her husband will move her parents down to Arizona and likely sell their house and move down there as well. It became evident to Iserman that caring for her parents was her new calling. “There’s just that need there,” she said. “I can just tell, they’re going to need some support with the way things are going. They don’t ask for much, but when they told us they needed help I knew it was serious. I can see that this is my new direction.”
But Minnesota has always has a sweet spot in her heart and, Iserman said, she doesn’t plan to leave the Midwest entirely.
“Maybe we’ll have a vacation home here and return to enjoy Minnesota summers,” she said. “My husband and I love bicycling and Minnesota’s landscapes are gorgeous for that. I have a sense that in the hot summer months we’d prefer to be up here and find a way to come back and enjoy Minnesota.”
Iserman seemed enthusiastic about the new opportunities that might present themselves in her new chapter. “With my original interest in geriatric and elderly care I wonder if living in an area that is predominately senior-oriented will offer opportunities to work or volunteer in that capacity because I’ve always had that passion for end-of-life support.”
While Iserman sometimes dreams of all the things she’ll do in retirement, “I’m really still here,” she said.
She said she’s going to be open to whatever life brings and looked forward to exploring other interests. She reflected on her career and thought how she would define herself after leaving a 30-plus-year career in education. Life is interesting that way, she said. There are these moments of transition that force you to look within and ask yourself who you are and what you’re really made of.
“I don’t know what I’ll find. I hope I like myself when I discover myself!” she laughed. “I’ve got a whole life to figure out. I hope to learn who I am without doing this. Our whole identity is wrapped up in what we do, but we’re more than that,” she said. “We’re more than what we do.”