Dean Hall/Lakeland Times
Bruce and Cathy Oxley participate in the 2017 Color Run at Minocqua Park Complex.
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times
Bruce and Cathy Oxley participate in the 2017 Color Run at Minocqua Park Complex.
In a few short weeks, just as it has since it’s release in 1972, Alice Cooper’s song, “School’s Out,” will take over the radio waves, and kids, parents, and teachers alike will find themselves singing along to the infamous lyrics: 

School’s out for summer 

School’s out forever

Cathy and Bruce Oxley might find themselves singing along a little louder this year, since, come June, the couple is retiring after a combined 60-plus years of teaching. 

When asked what they’re going to do next, the answer came quick. 

“We are going to —” Bruce started off.

“Sleep until six!” Cathy finished.

One gets the sense that finishing each other’s sentences comes naturally to the couple, who, though they’re finishing out their careers at different schools, taught at Arbor Vitae-Woodruff School together for much of their marriage and have operated on the same early morning schedule for years. In addition to teaching, they both share a love of exercise, and often the two wake at quarter to five to walk around a nearby lake. But after retirement, Cathy said, that will change. 

“No exercising before it’s light out!”

Cathy, who moved with her family to the Lakeland area from Brookfield, Ill., after graduating high school, met Bruce just before transferring from Nicolet to Eau Claire to complete her teaching degree. 

At the time, Bruce was teaching fifth grade. Although his first love is math, Bruce said the principal steered him toward the sciences right as elementary science was becoming popular. 

“It was getting more hands-on/inquiry based and he allowed me to go to some workshops and conferences and that’s what led me on my path,” he explained. 

The path has allowed Bruce to inspire not just students, but other educators as well. 

Rob Way, interim Lakeland Union High School district administrator, met Bruce when Way was just starting out his career as a science teacher at Minocqua J1 School District (MHLT). 

“He took me under his wing and really showed me how to create a joyful, rich learning environment for students,” Way said. “He has shaped my professional educational philosophy and (has really) formed who I am as an educator.” 

Bruce said at the time he didn’t think much of it. 

“I just kind of took him under my wing from a distance and got him involved in some state organizations,” Bruce explained. “I was just doing what any teacher would do, helping somebody out, but evidently it made an impression.”

Cathy began her career at Tree House Day Care, where she served as a teacher and director for 10 years. Once their three children were in school, Cathy, who had been turned down from AV-W a number of times because her license was too limiting, went to UW-Stevens Pointe for a year to expand her license to teach up to sixth grade. 

“Those were the years where they liked to move teachers around because the population was so erratic,” Bruce said. “Wo you needed K through eighth degrees so they could move you around.”

As luck would have it, after expanding her license, Cathy was hired at AV-W to teach 4K, which is what she has done for the past 19 years. 

Scott Brunswick, former principal of AV-W who hired Cathy out of school, said she was a natural. 

“She really understood the little ones,” Brunswick said. “She has a really great degree of empathy toward both children and understanding parents too, because she was raising boys of her own.”

In addition to her position as a 4K teacher, prior to this year, Cathy was also the special education teacher for three to six-year-olds. 

When she said she was retiring, they decided to hire two people to do her job, which gives an idea of how much she will be missed, if not the workload she’s balanced for close to two decades. 

Teaching, Cathy says, “isn’t a 40 hour a week job.”

Second retirement

This isn’t the first time Bruce has retired. In 2011, after Act 10 was signed into law by then Governor Scott Walker, reducing collective bargaining rights for teachers and requiring them to pay more toward their retirement and health care plans, Bruce retired.  

“Nine of us retired after Act 10,” Bruce says. “It wasn’t that any of us wanted to retire, but it was an economic decision. If we would have stayed we would’ve lost those benefits that we had accrued.”

Bruce spent the following two years working in the Response to Intervention program, helping students who struggled in math and reading. It wasn’t long before his old mentee, Rob Way, called him up. 

“He asked me to meet with him to talk about a science position that he was thinking about starting at Minocqua, and I said ‘Sure, I can give you some ideas of what that should look like,’” Bruce said. “And after we met three times he said, ‘Are you getting the idea that I’m picturing you for this position?’”

Bruce’s initial job at MHLT as a science specialist was to beef up the science program, but since taking the job, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) has gained popularity throughout the country. 

MHLT district administrator Dr. James Ellis said Bruce’s contribution to the program has made a huge impact. 

“Bruce brings a passion and an enthusiasm that’s second to none,” Ellis said. “As a science specialist ... we gave Bruce the platform to show the love of science to students K through fifth grade and also the classroom teachers … Our science curriculum is much stronger and a great part of that is due to Bruce Oxley.”

While Bruce has enjoyed his position, he says he can see STEAM moving in a more technological direction.

“I compare it to old dog/new tricks,” Bruce said. “That’s not my way of teaching, I’m more interactive with the kids, doing hands-on (activities) and not so much screen time.”

Ellis said Bruce was able to mentor his replacement, Jason Yates, for the entire year and the program will be expanding, probably from first through eighth grade.

Kids today

“When I first started teaching up here, Woodruff and Minocqua were still pretty much small towns,” Bruce said. “The big tourism hadn’t taken hold … we didn’t have the big city influence. Our kids are more street smart or societal then they used to be and I think all the good and all the bad that comes with that we’ve seen.”

Cathy said even at the four-year-old level there have been changes. 

“When I first started teaching I’d say, ‘boys and girls, lets jump,’ and they’d say, ‘how high, Mrs. Oxley, how high?’” Cathy explained. “And now I say, ‘boys and girls, lets jump,’ and they say, ‘eh, no, I don’t want to’… and they just think, ‘no I don’t really feel like doing that today.’

Bruce said there are still plenty of kids who are excited to participate, but in general, “they need more of a reason why they should do what you’re asking them to, whereas early in our careers they didn’t because you were the teacher, that’s what the teacher wanted so you’re going to do it,” Bruce said. 

One of his favorite things about teaching, the joy kids get from discovery, Bruce also thinks has changed. 

“The kids don’t get as fired up as they did when they make a discovery as they used to, I don’t think,” he said. “But when they do it’s amazing.”

Both Cathy and Bruce attribute some of this change to technology. 

“They’d rather sometimes watch it then do it,” Cathy said.  

“You can never be wrong if you watch it,” Bruce said. 

Teaching the town

“I think it would be safe to say we’ve taught the majority of kids in the area,” Bruce said. 

The benefits of teaching in a small town have been many for Bruce and Cathy, ranging from running into their students in the hardware store to seeing them mature from children into citizens of the community. 

“Our job ... is to help create good solid citizens,” Bruce said. “There are some former students of ours that are owners of businesses in the Lakeland area and they were never advanced or proficient in reading and math, but they’re employing a number of people in the area, they’re good citizens, they’re good parents. So I think sometimes we put so much emphasis on what the state thinks is important (which right now is reading and math) which, granted, that is important, but it’s not solely reading and math. It’s about helping these kids become good citizens and good family members and have good work ethics and things like that.” 

With their three sons grown and no grandchildren as of now, the Oxleys are looking forward to spending their initial retirement fulfilling some travel goals. They plan on camping in every state campground in Wisconsin, of which they’ve completed about half, and Bruce wants to see the Packers play in every stadium. They’re at 10 and counting. But they do plan on staying active in education through volunteering. 

“I can see me going to MHLT or AV-W several times during the year and working with kids or working with teachers,” Bruce said. “We’re passionate about education and how important it is.”

As for any advice the couple might have to parents of school-age children?

“Get involved with your kids,” Cathy said. While she acknowledges it can be difficult when both parents work, it’s important to “carve some time out for those kids every day.”

Bruce agrees. 

“You get out of it what you put in to it,” he said.

In that case the Oxleys should be getting back a lot.