Teaching Spanish at Bethlehem Academy satisfied an itch for Eileen Kriechbaum, who not only wanted her students to know about grammar, but about the world.
“I raised three kids here and dedicated myself to this place,” Kriechbaum said on one of the last days in her classroom. “I signed the contract as soon as I could whenever the time came.”
But now, at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, Kriechbaum has said, “Adios” to her students one last time as she begins her retirement.
Kriechbaum began teaching 40 years ago, and has served as BA’s only Spanish teacher for 34 of those years. Her mother saw a job opening in “The Catholic Reporter,” and when Kriechbaum came to the school, she was hired on the spot. She’s taught all four levels of Spanish throughout her career at BA.
At 19, Kriechbaum fell in love with Spanish culture on a trip to Caracas, Venezuela, where also got her first real glimpse of poverty. While working for the Minnesota Migrant Council during a college summer in the late 1970s, she decided she wanted to become a teacher.
During a time of anti-Vietnam protests and Woodstock, Kriechbaum said she wanted to be part of a radical force setting out to make a change.
“I wanted to bring attention to the Hispanic culture in Minnesota,” Kriechbaum said. “I knew people were coming in, and I wanted them to stay here. That’s kind of why I blend teaching language with social justice.”
When possible, Kriechbaum sought out opportunities to give her students first hand experiences improving the world. Following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she took students to the site of the natural disaster for a service trip. She also took two groups of students to Guatemala.
BA 2021 graduate Abby Larson plans to major in social work at the University of St. Thomas in the fall, largely due to the trip she took to Guatemala as one of Kriechbaum’s Spanish students. There, the group worked at the San Lucas Tolimán mission to build homes with the locals.
“I am forever grateful for having had Mrs. Kriechbaum as a teacher, mentor, and advisor for Bethlehem Academy’s Service Club,” Larson said. “She challenged me to see the world through a lens of service, which I will carry with me for life. Her love for life is truly contagious.”
Kriechbaum put an emphasis on migration, immigration and solidarity in her Spanish classes, drawing an awareness to global happenings. She also said, “I really try to push young men into being leaders and women to find their voices so they, too, have a place at the table.”
Megan Gasco, a 2005 graduate of BA, said she developed an interest and language thanks to Kriechbaum, and ultimately decided to become a Spanish teacher herself. With a large Spanish department at the school where she teaches, Gasco looks back in amazement at Kriechbaum for being the only Spanish teacher at BA for so many years.
Gasco said “Senora,” as many students called her, was an amazing teacher who taught more than the Spanish language to her students. During class, Gasco recalls Kriechbaum passionately sharing her experiences in Latin America and teaching her students to be global citizens. Many important “life lessons” spawned from stories Kriechbaum shared during prayer time at the start of class.
“Now that I am a Spanish teacher, I sometimes have to remind myself that these connections, anecdotes, life lessons are more important than the reading, grammar, etc.” Gasco said. “As much as language teachers would love to think all students are going to use the language on a daily basis, this isn’t reality, so having these real conversations were where some of the real life learning happened, while opening the minds of teenagers in a small private high school in Southern Minnesota.”
Teaching her students deep lessons didn’t mean being serious all the time for Kriechbaum, who said she’ll miss “just being human” with her students. She learned modern slang terms from her students, like “no cap” and “bussin’” and practiced using them in the classroom.
“I’ll miss being goofy with the kids,” Kriechbaum said. “I just say really random things, and the students laugh.”