Retiring Chatfield history teacher has no regrets choosing education over ministry

Tom Hilgren will be retiring from his position as history instructor at the end of this school year. He will continue to teach courses at St. Mary’s and hopes to enjoy time off with his wife, traveling and spending time playing musical instruments they have collected. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Tom Hilgren is leaving his flock.

“I had all the paperwork filled out to send off to go to seminary but decided at the last minute that I would serve best as a teacher,” recounted the retiring Chatfield High School history instructor, explaining how he became an educator instead of a spiritual advisor.

He elaborated, “I worked at a Lutheran church camp for seven summers. Sometime during that tenure, I realized how much I enjoyed working with young people, and I loved the creative part of developing lessons and curriculum.”

Hilgren started teaching in Munich, N.D., in 1982, and taught seventh and eighth grade math, seventh through 12th grade physical education, as well as seventh through 12th grade social studies. He also taught Title I math for two years.

“Early in my career, I did mostly middle school, but the last 20 years have been primarily ninth through 12th,” he added. “Although my favorite class to teach now is U.S. History, there were a number of years I taught psychology and AP European history which were fun to teach due to the students in the classes.”

Hilgren has spent the past 36 years at the front of a classroom, evangelizing students on growing a love for history and social studies.

“I believe this is my 26th year here in Chatfield,” he said. “I love creating a lesson that is fun for the students and is clearly educational — a lesson that works well. It’s fun seeing lightbulbs go on and seeing students make connections between classes or with other lessons.”

He stated that History Day was a major career-changer as well. “I have had incredible students to work with through the years. They become such experts in research,” Hilgren stated. “It makes me smile just thinking about some of the topics they have tackled over the last 20 years.”

Hilgren feels he has been rewarded here on Earth by students who have shown him that his decision to teach instead of preach was one made with great wisdom.

“The student that says, ‘That was fun.’ The student who suddenly gets something and comes to tell you about it. The note from the former students thanking you for something done in class. Students spontaneously singing the President’s Song when they see me at JAC’s. Of course, seeing the look on students’ faces when they are selected to go to the National History Day competition is pretty special,” he said.

Gadgets and wires have revolutionized teaching, Hilgren acknowledged, but the hymn he’s singing about technology is varied, as he’s witnessed the negative and positive effects of the silicon idols in students’ hands.

“The obvious thing that’s changed is technology. The first school didn’t have a copy machine until the second year of teaching! I think that public schools change by nature of the fact that they respond to the public they serve,” Hilgren said. “When it became evident that computers were going to play an important part of our society, schools had to add computer labs and technology positions.”

The same is true for other cultural changes. Hilgren expanded, “I don’t think there is much question that technology has changed how students behave and think. Dealing with cell phones, social media bullying, et cetera, has added to the difficulty of teaching. There seems to be some evidence indicating physical changes in the brain as well that influence behavior and thinking, and I love using technology in the classroom, but it serves as another barrier for some students who don’t have equal access, so there are both positives and negatives. It really is another tool. Otherwise, there are many subtle changes, but overall, the mission is still generally the same.”

If he could change anything about teaching, Hilgren would choose fewer interruptions in his classroom. “I would want uninterrupted classroom time. The number of times class gets interrupted each day is amazing — literally a dozen times per 90-minute period some days. Each time, you need to adjust what you are doing. It’s the single biggest negative in teaching and the main reason I couldn’t see myself teaching much longer. And teaching is much less about helping students learn the skills and content of my discipline now, and more about managing behaviors, disruptions, interruptions, et cetera. I entered the profession to teach, not serve as a counselor, so I won’t miss the things that happen each day in school that I have no control over.”

He chose to retire now, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, because he was eligible to do so…to find his retirement heaven.

“First, due to the Rule of 90, I qualified for a full pension. Secondly, I wanted to end my career while I still enjoyed what I was doing. I didn’t want to get to the point where I didn’t want to come to work,” Hilgren said.

He observed that he’s changed over the years, finding himself in need of a daily coffee baptism to keep up with the work before him. “I get tired much easier. I can’t imagine how I managed to coach three sports and teach all day as I did most of my first ten years prior to coming to Chatfield. I think I’m also much more tolerant and patient than when I first started.”

Retirement brings Hilgren some leisurely teaching opportunities — he’ll be at the pulpit of a college classroom, still giving sermons on the tenets of history.

“I will still be teaching a couple classes at St. Mary’s in Winona next fall,” he explained. “I would like to find some part-time project work somewhere in education, or perhaps teach some online history courses using curriculum I have created. I have lots of hobbies, from reading for fun to playing my guitar and messing around with the multitude of other musical instruments my wife and I have collected. It will be nice to finally have time off at the same time my wife does so we can do a little traveling.”

Hilgren concluded, “The 36 years I have been teaching have been an incredible journey. I’ve taught with some truly remarkable people and met students that give me great optimism for the future. From staff to students, they are what has made this career such a great adventure.” 


Well done, Mr. Hilgren. From what I've read over the years in the Chatfield News, you have been one of the "special" teachers who makes a real difference to students.
(I was in the class of 1967 at CVHS - I retired a few years ago after teaching History and English for nearly forty years in Australia.)
Cheers.      Steve Ellis