After teaching at McGaugh Elementary since 1990, transitional kindergarten teacher Sheri Kutz ended her teaching career at home, trying to use distance learning to finish the school year for her students.
The final months were a far cry from what was envisioned by Kutz and the school. Colleagues describe Kutz as a caring person, who taught from the heart and made connections with students, parents and her co-workers, that often last for decades after students move on from her class. Kutz herself, gets emotional as she talks about the end of her teaching.
During a phone interview, she chokes up at the thought of not getting to finish out her career with face-to-face interaction with her school community.
“It is a disappointment,” Kutz said, during a phone interview.
An avid piano player, Kutz took an early linking to sharing music with her students and using it to engage them in school. It was also a big reason that she was interested to helping out with the school’s annual Pageant of the Arts, when she joined the school faculty at the start of the 1990-91 school year.
By 1997 she was the Director of the Pageant and held the title until 2013. Since then she remained as the Assistant Director and was set to finish that post this year. New director of the pageant, Leslie Obert, had announced that this year’s pageant would be dedicated to Kutz for her long commitment.
“That was a very, very nice thing for her to do,” Kutz said, her voice cracking at the thought.
All students contribute to the pageant, with students getting more involved as they progress in grades. By the time they reach fifth grade, they are most of the performers. Principal Roni Ellis said that Kutz’ commitment to the arts are a big part of her teaching philosophy. She also said that the pageant has become a big part of McGaugh’s identity and that Kutz’ contribution to it have been immeasurable.
“The memories that it creates are just phenomenal,” Ellis said.
Kutz began teaching in Salt Lake City in 1979, the same year she married her husband Rudy Kutz. In 1987, Sheri and Rudy were looking for adventure and decided to move, with their then two-year-old daughter Kirsten, to China where Rudy had a chance to teach at a Beijing university. Sheri taught English to adults and later moved back into elementary age teaching at the Beijing International School.
The adventure would take an historical turn as the young family was in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests. But by August of 1990, the Kutz family was ready to return to the states. Kirsten, having attended day care in China, found her own passion. She kept learning Chinese and would eventually earn a degree in International Relations, with a focus on Chinese.
Meanwhile, returning to the states in 1990 turned out to be fortuitous for Sheri, as McGaugh had a large influx of kindergartners and needed another teacher. Sheri was interviewed and hired on the spot, jumping right back into the classroom.
Over the years, Sheri taught grades K through 3rd, but has spent much of her time in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten. Since kids are still learning academic basics and socializing, Sheri tried to use music and interaction to connect with the kids. And, to allow them to connect with each other. She said she tried to offer them the chance to share and talk.
Lisa McClellan, who taught alongside Sheri for about 29 years, said that Sheri not only used music to help engage students, she advocated for its importance in education from the beginning. McClellan also noted that Sheri’s ability to connect with students extended to their support system as well.
“She integrates the whole family,” McClellan said.
Seal Beach resident Erica Strang’s child was in Sheri’s class this year. Despite the year getting cut short, Strang said that she saw the benefit for her child to have a teacher like Sheri Kutz.
“Having Mrs. Kutz for our first year at McGaugh was the best introduction we could ask for,” Strang said. “Her experience, kindness, and patience made all the difference to the children and parents.”
For Sheri, she said some of the things she enjoyed most, was meeting with families in the morning during student drop off and seeing that moment when a child comes to life in the process of learning.
Her daughter Kirsten said that her mom brought the same commitment to her family as she did to her teaching. She said she remembers her mom making her Halloween costumes every year and painting a Christmas mural on the front window of their home every holiday. She said Sheri was also there to read her granddaughter her first story.
“As a mom to me and a wife to my dad, she is tireless in her generosity and support,” Kirsten said.
Sheri said she does not have any specific plans for retirement yet. She wants to travel and since her daughter, lives in Dubai with her husband Duraid and her granddaughter Liliana, she will be arranging a visit as soon as travel returns to some state of normalcy. But her legacy at McGaugh seems set in the people she has touched.
“She’s developed a lot of relationships with students and teachers,” Ellis said.