Vashon High School history teacher Martha Woodard (far right) laughs with students Anjali Gunewardena (middle) and Jesse during the last day of school.

‘Legendary’ Vashon High School teacher retires after more than 30 years

It's 10:30 a.m. on the last day of school at Vashon High School, and six of history teacher Martha Woodard's students are gathered around her reminiscing about the year and laughing. One student looks up the name "Martha" on a humorous reference site and reads that Martha is "a successful independent woman … well respected by everyone," a definition that fits Woodard just right.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on the last day of school at Vashon High School, and six of history teacher Martha Woodard’s students are gathered around her reminiscing about the year and laughing. One student looks up the name “Martha” on a humorous reference site and reads that Martha is “a successful independent woman … well respected by everyone,” a definition that fits Woodard just right.

“Martha is a legend,” principal Danny Rock said, “She was a legend when I got to VHS because she has a strong and consistent reputation. Right away I saw that she’s kind, strong, funny and courageous. Students want to be around (her).”

After more than 30 years of teaching at VHS, she is retiring, leaving a legacy in the form of thousands of students who sat in her classroom and learned about history, art or English. Also, as the leader of Vashon’s teachers’ union — the Vashon Education Association — she is leaving “a special relationship with the staff,” Rock said.

“She brings up difficult topics in a non-threatening way,” he said. “Her humor and kindness is crucial.”

As she sat down for an interview with The Beachcomber on Thursday — her last day as a teacher — more than a dozen students stopped by her room to say goodbye and good luck, and had her sign their yearbooks. One such student was Marisol Marinez, who just finished her sophomore year. She never took a class of Woodard’s, but met the teacher during a tutorial period that Woodard supervised.

“She’s absolutely incredible,” Marinez said. “I had her for a tutorial period and she would give us snacks to get our brains cranking. She’s fun-loving and great.”

Rock said that Woodard was the only VHS teacher who offered her name up to supervise the tutoring. He said that she had been talking about retirement for years, but it never stopped her from giving all she had.

“She kept working harder and harder,” Rock said. “That’s her passion, she wants to serve these at-risk kids and case manage individuals. She is the difference for a lot of these kids between failing everything and passing. Martha is just a strong advocate for kids.”

That advocacy is deeply rooted, Woodard says, because students are the ones who gave her her job.

Her journey to Vashon began when she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in history, but realized quickly that there would be little hope for a job.

“It’s a college town, everyone there has Ph.Ds,” she said. “I called my friend up, who had just graduated from Berkeley, and we made a deal and said we would meet up with each other wherever the first one of us got a job. I got a job nannying in Seattle, so we met up there.”

She moved and met her husband, who lived in a commune on Vashon. She began working for Vashon’s Country Store & Farm and realized that most jobs would cause her to miss too much of life.

“The day I decided I was going to become a teacher, I was folding overalls at the country store and it was Strawberry Festival and I realized I was going to be working all summer,” she said. “I had to get out of it.”

But being a teacher was never something she had considered before.

“I thought teaching was a job that ninnies did,” she said with a laugh. “I used to sit in class and see how teachers were treated and ask myself, ‘Why would I want to be a teacher?'”

She went back to school and received a teaching certificate from the University of Washington. Then, in true Vashon fashion, she heard about a teaching position on a ferry ride one day in 1983: A teacher at VHS had left mid-year.

“I called them up and said I have a history degree and teaching certificate,” she said.

She was hired at VHS in January of 1983, at the peak of a recession when hundreds of teachers had been laid off; “a miracle of a job,” she called it. But after one year, the superintendent decided he did not want to bring her back the following year because he needed a male teacher to coach football.

“Vashon then was not the Vashon it is now,” she said Thursday. “I was devastated. (My husband and I) were already islanders, this was a dream job … I was crushed.”

She told her friend about the superintendent’s intentions, who quickly mobilized hundreds of island students to sign a petition asking for Woodard to stay. It worked.

“The kids gave me my job. I’ve been grateful ever since,” she said.

In return for giving her the job she has loved for more than 30 years, she says she patterned her teaching style after the great teachers she had in her own elementary school and her mother, who was a college professor.

“A passion for your field of learning is really important,” she said. “I just love these kids. The secret to good teaching is to treat kids how you want to be treated, it’s pretty simple.”

Former students can attest to her expertise and passion for learning, with many ranking her in the category of the best teacher they’ve ever had.

Guliver Goering attended VHS in the XXXX and had Woodard as an art teacher.

“She’s my hero,” he said.

Another former student, Ben Clarke, had Woodard as a teacher during the 2003-2004 school year. She was teaching a combined English and history class called American Studies with fellow teacher Harris Levinson. Clarke said he remembers the class had one of the largest projects that needed to be completed in order to graduate.

“If you got through that, you moved on to senior year,” Clarke said. “They were very firm on due dates and I remember missing one and being mad. Definitely a lot of good life lessons learned. That project shaped the course of my life, I did it on the nuclear proliferation of major countries and decided I would never join the military.”

Levinson said that American Studies was Woodard’s “dream class.” The two taught it together from 1997-2010 and “built the class each year into something greater,” Levinson said.

“We both are passionate about civil rights and free expression so Friday ‘Rants’n’Raves’ became a beloved staple of our curriculum. Students would rise to speak about all nature of topics including their political opinions, reviews of recent films or the status of their sports teams,” he said.

Addressing the project Clarke referenced, he said Woodard was always interested in finding new ways to challenge students.

“(She) spent countless weekends going over capstone projects and presentations,” he said. “She relates well with students who benefit from a slower pace and identified with them … More advanced learners appreciate her ability to dive deep into research and illuminate it. Most everyone just loves her straight-dope approach to education and life. I still go find Martha when I need someone to remind me of the big picture and help me put things in perspective.”

In respect to Woodard’s involvement with the teachers’ union, he said she always tried to lead with respect, “knowing full well what unions have accomplished for the American worker and having been a student of labor rights for her whole life.”

“Martha is a champion of people who are willing to work hard and not make excuses,” Levinson said. “She might fall for the cuteness of a kitty or two, but don’t get between Tita (her nickname) and a righteous cause.”

Including Woodard, Vashon Island School District has a total of 23 employees who retired or resigned at the end of the school year. In those nearly two dozen are VHS teacher Elisabeth Jellison, a science teacher who has been at the high school for 15 years. She has accepted a job at Steilacoom High School.

At Chautauqua Elementary School, fourth grade teacher Jan Smith and multi-age teacher Geri Wilson are retiring after more than 20 years with the district.

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