MT. COMFORT — Fifth grade is a roller coaster season of life, said Sherry Milender.
“One day they want to be 3 or 4 and another 16 or 17,” she said. “I can remember how I felt.”
Working with students to navigate such challenges has been rewarding to Milender, a fifth-grade teacher at Mt. Comfort Elementary School. She retired at the end of the school year after 28 years of teaching at the Mt. Vernon Community School Corp.
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Milender’s career spanned various grade levels and various schools within the district. Being flexible was not a problem for her. Neither was staying positive.
“Waking up in a happy mood came naturally to me,” she said. “It’s easy for me to make other people happy.”
Over the years, words from the principal who hired her have stayed with her. They won’t remember what you teach them, he had told her, as much as they remember how they felt in your class.
Milender came to her first year of teaching after years of staying home with her three sons, all graduates of Mt. Vernon High School. As they grew older, she picked up where she’d left off, years earlier as a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, and finished her degree.
The family had settled in the community after Milender’s husband, an insurance salesman, felt he had a good idea of central Indiana communities from doing business in them.
When he was working in the communities of the Mt. Vernon school district, “Everyone was super friendly,” Milender said. “We said, ‘This is where we want to raise our kids.’”
Her husband was a charter member of the local Optimist club. She remembers coaching a pee wee baseball team on a diamond behind where Mt. Comfort Elementary now sits. One day a boy on the team who lived close by got a great hit.
“Go home!” Milender yelled.
Not realizing she meant home plate, he went to his house. These are the moments one chuckles over years later.
She’s enjoyed that kind of engagement in the community — running into her students and their families at ball games or the grocery store, meeting the children of her sons’ playmates, seeing former students grown up and with beards, even.
At the end of a school year, an exhausted teacher reflects on some of the victories of the school year past, she said. One thing she has felt good about is some of the social studies lessons shared. She’s covered some American history and what it means to be a good citizen. “If they remember a little bit of that, that’s a highlight,” she said.
As a result, another highlight is when a former student joins the military service. It says to her those lessons were remembered, that “they wanted to do something purposeful.”
She’s also especially proud of former students who become teachers. Some have gone on to teach in the Mt. Vernon district.
Ashley Schenck was not in Milender’s class during elementary school, but she was an assistant to Milender during her senior year of high school. They were on the same staff at Mt. Vernon Intermediate School years ago, and this fall she’ll move from McCordsville Elementary to Milender’s fifth-grade classroom at Mt. Comfort.
Schenck remembers as a senior feeling that, in Milender’s classroom, she’d be learning about being a teacher from one of the best. She remembers how patient and caring Milender was; that example made her think about how she would need to cultivate more patience in her own life to be an effective teacher.
“She showed every kid that she loved them, and they all knew it,” Schenck said. “She managed to do that every single day.”
Ellen Wade, a 2010 Mt. Vernon graduate who was in Milender’s second-grade class at Mt. Vernon Elementary, said Milender was good at picking up on what was unique about each student. She commanded a deep respect from students, Wade said.
“You didn’t want to disappoint her,” she said. “You wanted to be on your best behavior with her.”
Wade remembers talking with Milender before and after school. Even after Wade and her best friend were third-graders, they would stop to talk with Milender.
“Out of all of the teachers I’ve ever had, she’s definitely one of my favorites,” Wade said.
After going back to school to become a teacher, now Milender finds it time for more classes. She’s getting a license to sell insurance and plans to work with her husband. There’s a thread of similarity in the lines of work, she said: explaining things to people who may not understand her at first.
It should give them more flexibility, she said, make their time more their own. After all, there’s a catamaran they hope to sail in the Caribbean.
But she hopes to visit school and assist with activities she’s enjoyed over the years, such as helping out with the walking club and the art club. There are also five acres of grass, trees and pond in Hancock County that will remain home.
“I love the family spirit here. It’s greater than I ever imagined it could be,” Milender said. “We’re vested. We raised our kids here. I love it here.”