Bemidji High School counselor Judy Comstock finds it a strange feeling knowing she won't have to stop into school this summer to check messages and e-mails.
After 33 years of work as a school counselor, Comstock will retire this summer. But don't expect her to kick her feet up and call it quits. She plans to accomplish lifelong goals beyond the classroom.
How she got here
Throughout her career as a teacher and school counselor, Comstock said her goal has always been to make a difference in the lives of students.
Looking back, Comstock said she feels she achieved her goal and attributes it to her personal motto of staying active and working hard.
Comstock, originally from Hill City, Minn., found her passion for helping people when she was a high school student. When she was 15 years old her older sister was killed in a car accident.
"We didn't have a school counselor. There was nobody to talk to," she said. "So I just stayed busy and kept everything inside."
Comstock, the oldest of five children in her family, dealt with her personal loss by staying active and participating in many school clubs and activities.
One day, a teacher approached her and said, "You really work well with kids. Have you ever thought about being a teacher?"
"That was my career counseling," Comstock said. "None of my cousins or extended family had gone to college before me. When my teacher asked me about teaching, I thought, 'Yeah, I could do that.'"
She started out at a community college and eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota. At that time, Comstock said, students could not to go school to become school counselors. Only teachers who had taught for two years could become counselors.
Comstock earned a degree in consumer homemaking and family life from the University. After graduating, she started work in 1975 as a teacher and coach at Elk River Junior High School in Elk River, Minn.
"Right when I started teaching I knew I wanted to be a school counselor," Comstock said. "I really wanted to make a difference."
She moved to the Bemidji area in 1980 after attaining a master's degree in secondary guidance and counseling from Bemidji State University and worked as a teacher and peer helper facilitator at Cass Lake High School for 11 years.
In 1991, Comstock got a job as a school counselor at Bemidji Middle School, and in 2003, she was transferred to the high school.
Comstock has taught home economics, health education, drivers training, coaching and practicum. She's also worked as a school counselor at the elementary, middle and high school levels. One might agree she's a jack of all trades.
"Judy Comstock will be greatly missed by the Lumberjack community," said BHS principal Brian Stefanich. "(She) takes great pride in getting to know students outside of the school environment. You always see her at numerous extracurricular activities."
Throughout her career as a counselor, Comstock said her job description has changed dramatically.
When she first started at Bemidji Middle School as one of two counselors, almost every year there was a death, she said.
"I did a lot of grief counseling. I was working with kids almost all the time," she said. "I focused on helping kids with personal issues, and I really enjoyed that."
Today, Comstock is one of two counselors at BHS who are there to help 1,400 students. She said that she will listen to students who ask for her help, but will usually refer them to the school social worker, career professional or an outside agency for therapy.
"If there is a student death, I'm the first person students might talk to," she said. "But I don't have time in my schedule to do weekly scheduling of counseling sessions anymore."
The lack of interactions with students these days is one of her biggest frustrations, she said. Nowadays, Comstock said she spends most her time adjusting student schedules and talking with students and parents to help them choose classes.
"Scheduling needs to be done and there's really no one else to do it," Comstock said. "But you don't need a master's degree in counseling to change a schedule."
In the spring, Comstock plays a huge role in facilitating state mandated tests, a task that has taken her years to become efficient at. It is her job to make sure the hundreds of exams are matched with the correct students. She trains teachers how to proctor the exams, coordinates room assignments and organizes testing materials. Afterwards, she collects the tests, counts each one and delivers them to wherever they need to go.
"I have to manage secure, high-stakes tests," Comstock said. "If a test would get missing out of the 700 exams, it could invalidate all the scores, not just in our school district, either. When I'm working on testing, I don't let students in my office. I do a lot of it in the evenings."
Her frustration with testing comes from the volumes of tests she has to work with.
"This will be one part I won't miss. The job has gotten more complicated each year, but I've grown into it," Comstock said.
While her job might not always be pleasant, others have appreciated her efforts.
"Judy has been the testing queen or otherwise known as the 'testy tester' of the High School," Stefanich said. "She has done a great job to ensure that we have met or exceeded the local and state testing guidelines through her impeccable organization skills."
For most of her career, Comstock has been wrapped around a school schedule, but now she said she will have more time to do what she wants.
Her highest priority is pursuing promoting choice theory, a method of counseling that describes people as having internal control of their choices.
"Even as a teacher I was always trying to get kids to make choices and not trying to control them," she said. "I wanted to help kids to take responsibility and take internal control."
She said she looks forward to reading more books, especially mystery novels. She wants to do scrapbooking and take on whitewater rafting in the near future. She plans to continue to work as a member of the ski patrol team at Buena Vista Ski Area and help steer boats this summer at the Dragon Boat Festival.
"I have plenty of things to keep me busy," she said. "I don't want to commit to too many things."
In discussing the future of public education, Comstock said she thinks there needs to be more counselors in schools.
She said when she started working the school district had six school counselors - two at the middle school and four at the high school.
"Now we're down to three total," she said. "That's my biggest concern. A lot of students just need someone to listen and help them with normal developmental things."
Comstock was one of the key players in writing a grant that funded an additional school counselor to specifically work with ninth-graders last year.
"We had good statistics," she said. "More kids passed their classes. We saw a decrease in discipline referrals. I wanted to leave a legacy of getting three counselors back at the high school."
Although her one-on-one time with students has been limited in recent years, Comstock said she has enjoyed working as a school counselor, will miss the interactions she had with students and staff and cherishes the positive feedback she has received from students.
"You never know how many kids you really reached," Comstock said. "I had a student who I taught at Cass Lake over 20 years ago find me on Facebook. He told me how much he appreciated that I had taken him skiing and invited him to be with my family over a holiday."
While she thinks retirement might seem strange to her at first, Comstock said the one thing she really looks forward to is being able to sleep in until at least 7 a.m. in the morning.