Not many people can say they love their job.
Even fewer people could assimilate the idea of working in the same town for a half-century.
But Loretta Zimmer of Woodbridge is different.
Zimmer, 71, who is the principal of the Middle Road Elementary School in Hazlet, will retire on June 25 and conclude a 50-year career in Hazlet education.
“When did I get so old?” Zimmer laughed during an interview at the school on May 29. “I always wanted to make a school what I thought it should be. Not an institution, but a family.”
In the 1960s, Zimmer became a student teacher at Hazlet’s Lillian Drive Elementary School during a semester at Glassboro State College in Gloucester County (now Rowan University).
On Sept. 1, 1969, at the age of 20, Zimmer, began her career in the Hazlet Township Public School District as a fourth grade teacher at the Lillian Drive school. She said she taught pupils in the fourth and fifth grades for the next decade.
Returning to education after temporarily leaving to give birth, Zimmer was transferred to the Hazlet Middle School and taught pupils in the school’s program for gifted and talented children. After four years, she became the school district’s instructor of gifted and talented youngsters.
“I’ve worked in every school in Hazlet except the high school,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer was a teacher for 26 years. The last 24 years have required Zimmer to replace the designation of “Mrs.” with a marginally more authoritative title – principal. She described the role of principal as her dream position in education.
“I always loved teaching and I always loved working with kids,” Zimmer said. “I worked with fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade (students). When (the district) was starting an enrichment program for second and third (grade), I did second and third (grade) enrichment. I helped formulate the enrichment program in the district and wrote the curriculum for that.
“Having traveled around to all the different schools in Hazlet … I always thought I wanted to make a school like a family – with parents, students, teachers and the principal working together. That’s what I wanted to do. I got my master’s degree from Rutgers and I put in to be a principal. I wanted a job that was in elementary school,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer said she formerly worked as a camp director during the summer for the Girl Scouts and the YMCA.
“I had a lot of experience with kids 24 hours a day,” she said.
“I was given the opportunity (to become principal) after a number of principals were leaving and retiring,” Zimmer said. “A couple of jobs came up. I said, ‘I’m going to apply.’ I was asked how come I had never applied before. I said it was because there never was a job I really wanted before.”
Before assuming the role of principal, Zimmer said, she served as an administrative aide to the Middle Road Elementary School’s former principal. She was an Odyssey of the Mind coach and took the first group of pupils in the school district to the world level, the final round of the international problem-solving competition.
“If it had never worked out, I would have been happy to stay a teacher. I enjoy teaching. When I did get the principal’s job, my daughter said, ‘Mom … you are going to feel terrible not having a class.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to have 360 students and they will all be my class.’ That’s what I did. I was lucky enough to get the job here at Middle Road.”
Zimmer said her dream to become a principal came with one condition – the position had to be available in Hazlet.
“This town is a great place. It’s very kid-oriented. There are great people … good teachers. If I were ever to move out of the town I grew up in … I’d be living in Hazlet,” she said.
Zimmer recalled a fond memory from teaching. She said “the excitement on kids’ faces when they accomplish something” was a pure expression of youthful wonder for enrichment.
She said those experiences delighted her.
“Now as a principal, (the students) come off the buses and come running past me to say good morning. (The students) are happy to be here,” Zimmer said. “If I have been able to help one child, it’s worth my whole career.”
Asked what lessons she hoped to impart upon children, Zimmer said she wants her pupils to “follow their dreams, work hard, be creative, and know you are always accepted.”
“Once a roadrunner, always a roadrunner,” Zimmer said, explaining that the roadrunner is the school’s mascot. “That means the kids know they can always come back here and someone will be happy to see them. We have adults who come back who say they are roadrunners. I’ve even been able to hire a number of teachers who were once students.”
Zimmer, who said her students taught her to “enjoy life,” said her successor has not yet been named by the Board of Education. But just like the principal before her did, Zimmer said she intends to leave a note with a good luck message for her successor inside her desk drawer.