Letsinger’s Legacy: After 22 years teaching at Muncie Central High School, Lisa Letsinger is retiring and leaving behind a legacy

The artwork-lined hallways of Muncie Central High School (MCHS) have been Lisa Letsinger's second home for 22 years. Since January 2000, when she rolled textbooks classroom to classroom on a cart to teach accounting and personal finance, Letsinger has rooted herself at the heart of MCHS and in the hearts of her students.

At the end of the school year, Mrs. Letsinger's classroom door will close for the last time when she retires from MCHS. But, while room 258 may not be plastered with colorful handprints when students return next fall, Letsinger said she doesn't want her students to feel as though she is leaving them, because they have become her family.

Letsinger taught accounting and finance in her classroom for years, she said, but her students left with more than notes on math lessons and a better understanding of taxes. She taught them the value of respect, she said, and how to reach their highest potential and believe they could.

At her feet below her desk sits Letsinger's purse, big enough for her to stuff binders of lesson plans and students' assignments inside. Right next to it is a stack of thank you cards, graduation party invitations, wedding invites and personal, handwritten letters from hundreds of students she's taught over the past two decades, all with a story to tell about how Mrs. Letsinger changed them for the better.

'The Guinea Pig'

Letsinger graduated from Ball State in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in accounting. For 10 years, she worked as an accountant in corporate accounting for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Tipton, Indiana, before starting her family and moving back to Muncie, where she began substitute teaching accounting and finance classes.

When the principal of one of the schools Letsinger was substituting at approached her and told her to get her teaching license, Letsinger said she told the principal it was something she had always wanted to do, but it was the '80s, and the job market was saturated.

Letsinger took a leap to pursue her dream anyway, and in 1997, she became the first Ball State student to transition to teaching by taking courses at the graduate level to earn a teaching degree.

"I was actually the guinea pig," Letsinger said. "I graduated in the winter in 1999, and five days later, I signed my contract [at Muncie Central]. I've been here ever since, and now, hundreds of thousands of students have gone through to transition into education [at Ball State]."

The Cart Teacher

Letsinger set her passion for teaching aside for ten years while she did accounting, she said, but when she graduated from Ball State in 1999 with her teaching degree, she said the timing couldn't have been better.

"I think that God aligned me with the right people at the right time," she said.

Dick Daniels was principal of MCHS at the time, and he conducted Letsinger's interview when she applied and sent her name to the board for approval. The only concern anyone had, she said, was how high school-aged students would accept a 37-year-old teacher and connect with her. But, within a few months, Letsinger officially became a teacher at MCHS.

"I had absolutely no problem with my connection with my students," Letsinger said. "I'm very proud of all my students."

But, she didn't have a classroom to teach them in. For her entire first semester of teaching, Letsinger carried her stack of textbooks up and down hallways between class periods.

"Finally, one of the ladies that worked in here went, 'Let me see if I could find a cart,' because I had to go upstairs," Letsinger said. "I'm carrying all these textbooks around with me … It was crazy."

Pursuing Potential

Letsinger sets high expectations for every student, she said, and she makes sure they are aware of every one of them. It's her philosophy to reach a level of mutual respect in the classroom, as it's one of the most effective ways to help her students see what they are capable of achieving.

"I demand respect. I have high expectations for all my students, and I harp on them and harp on them and harp on them until they conform, so to speak, and then we can become friends," she said. "But I have to gain their respect, and they have to gain mine. It's a two-way street, but when I demand that they do these things, then they say, 'Oh my gosh, I can be something. I am going to be something."

Daniels often teases Letsinger for being the "best hire he's ever had," but there are distinct reasons he says so, and one of them, he said, is the control she had over her classroom.

"She made an immediate impact in several different areas, and she's a great teacher," Daniels said. "She's just very organized and well versed in her subject area of business and got along great with students, but didn't let them get away with anything, which is a hard balance to make for a teacher, but Lisa was very good at that. She pressed them to do their best and held them to high standards, but they liked her, and that's a good combination."

Fashion Forward

In her second year, Letsinger transitioned from teaching off of a cart to a workplace split between two rooms. When she had her own classroom to teach in, Letsinger said, she made more of an attempt to dress like a teacher and not so much like an accountant.

"I had bought pants because I didn't really know how to dress," Letsinger said. "I didn't know what the expectation was. I knew that you should dress nice, but I didn't know because I was used to wearing suits."

Letsinger wore her new pants early in the school year, to both dress appropriately and display professional workplace attire for her students to learn how to properly dress. When she walked into school that day, she said, one of her students, Randy Ruble, stopped her in the hall.

"He goes, 'Oh, look at Ms. L! She's sporting some new trousers," Letsinger said. "I looked at him - I forgot to take my tags off."

To this day, Letsinger said, she remains in contact with Ruble, and she received a Facebook message from him in January.

"He said, 'You always played a huge part in my life, and I would not be the man I am today or the person I am today without you,'" Letsinger said, "'and I want you to be a part of my wedding.'"

It is moments and relationships like those with Ruble, Letsinger said, that make leaving MCHS so difficult.

"I've done so much in the building to encourage my students to be better people," Letsinger said, but she has made sure her desire to teach students the importance of workplace professionalism stays even after she is gone.

During her time at MCHS, Letsinger started hosting etiquette dinners for her students to provide an opportunity to learn professional manners, improve their workplace attire and develop communication and networking skills.

"We called it a mocktail," Letsinger said. "We'd have a cocktail party down in the student center, and all of the staff here would dress up as the waiters. They would all have trays, and we would make hors d'oeuvres and drinks. I would invite community members to come in, and the kids would come all dressed up. I want the kids to learn, it was all teaching."

After hosting her first etiquette dinner, however, Letsinger said she realized something she was shocked she didn't think of sooner. 

"Some of these kids have never even been to a nice dinner," Letsinger said. "I've never seen anything like that, so not only did I invite people, I also then started asking people to donate dress clothes."

Before she knew it, Letsinger had two to three closets in MCHS filled with suits, pantsuits, dresses and shoes to give to students in need of nicer attire.

"People were like, 'Oh, I've got some extra things that I'm not wearing,'" Letsinger said. "The clothes might not be their style, but at least they get an idea, and now all these kids are getting dress clothes."

Cultivating Connections

Whether her students know she cares about them from day one or it takes a few weeks to develop a relationship, Letsinger said she prioritizes making sure every student knows she cares about them just as much as she does teaching.

"Every kid knows that I care about them," Letsinger said. "Sometimes, it might take a little bit for them to figure things out, but they finally do … and some of the things that I've done outside of the classroom built the rapport that I had with a lot of kids."

One student, in particular, built a strong connection with Letsinger, so much so they consider one another family. He was one of Letsinger's students, and every day during lunchtime, he came down to her classroom, sat at the chair she always keeps beside her desk and told Letsinger "his story."

"His name is Michael … and he was basically living on the streets," Letsinger said. "So, I would go home, and I talked to my husband about him all the time. Finally, Pete says, 'Why don't you just see if that young man would want to go out for pizza with us tonight?'"

Letsinger asked Michael to join her and her husband, Pete, for dinner, and Michael told her he would meet them at the restaurant. He didn't want them to know where he was living, Letsinger said.

"He and Pete hit it off, and, next thing I know, Michael's coming to live with us," Letsinger said. "When he came, he said, 'I don't want your money. I just want somebody. I just want to know that I have family and people here in Muncie that love me and care about me when I'm in the military.'"

Michael stayed with the Letsingers until he joined the military, and Letsinger said she and Pete "are still mom and dad to him." 

"He's 38, and he lives in Michigan," Letsinger said. "He went from selling drugs on the south side of town, and he is now, I'm proud to say, an attorney. He is a [Judge Advocate General's Corp] officer for the United States Government and works for the Defense Department."

Michael has three boys, the oldest of which - a sophomore in high school - still calls Letsinger "Grammy."

Contact Taylor Smith with comments at tnsmith6@bsu.edu or on Twitter @taywrites.