Former Pekin teacher Robert Tollefson will return to the district next school year to be Pekin’s new secondary school principal, covering grades 7-12.
Pekin superintendent Dave Harper announced the hiring of Tollefson earlier this week. It will be a coming home party for Tollefson, who started his career in education by teaching middle school math at Pekin from 1999-2002. For the past 17 years, Tollefson has worked as a teacher and principal at multiple schools in Davenport.
Tollefson will replace Clint Gingerich effective July 1.
Tollefson graduated from West Marshall High School in the town of State Center, between Ames and Marshalltown. He said it’s similar in size to Pekin with graduating classes in the upper 50s and lower 60s.
He received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Iowa State University. While attending ISU, he helped at his former high school, which nurtured his desire to work with children even further.
His dream was to become a math teacher, and that’s what he did immediately out of college after securing a job as a middle school math teacher at Pekin.
“One of the first people I met at Pekin was [head football coach] Tom Stone,” Tollefson recalled. “He made it clear how you work with kids, and how you get the best out of them. He was unbelievable, and impacted me a great deal.”
Tollefson was an assistant football coach under Stone during his time at Pekin. Stone is also the father of Brian Stone, Fairfield High School principal.
Pekin’s middle school principal at the time, whom Tollefson worked under, was Art Sathoff, who would go on to become the superintendent in the Fairfield Community School District. Tollefson and Sathoff coached high school basketball together.
Other teachers who helped Tollefson during his early years in the profession were Art Millikin (science, biology) and Dawn Black (special education). He coached and taught alongside Harper, who will be his supervisor, when the two coached high school football. Robert also coached high school baseball with Jeff Eeling, who is now the principal at Washington Elementary School in Fairfield, and Byron Peyton.
Though he enjoyed his job in the district, he and his wife Andrea were faced with a dilemma. She had just graduated from Indian Hills in computer programming, and could not find a job in the area. Tollefson met with the school board to tell its members that, as much as they hated the thought of leaving, they might have no other choice. And that’s what happened as Andrea found work in the Quad Cities.
Robert took the opportunity to go back to school, earning his master’s degree in administration from Western Illinois University at its campus in Moline, Illinois. While going to school on the weekends, he taught middle school social studies and reading at Williams Intermediate School, a junior high in Davenport.
After three years of teaching, Tollefson was hired as associate principal at Davenport West High School. He later transferred to Wood Intermediate, a junior high in Davenport West’s school district, to be with his children. Two of his three kids were in junior high at the time.
Robert and Andrea have three children: Grace, now a freshman, Andrew in seventh grade and Noah in fifth grade.
At the end of last year, Tollefson changed jobs again, this time going to Davenport North High School, where his daughter goes to school and where his older son would have gone in another year.
Davenport North is away from the Mississippi River and thus has not been affected by last week’s flood, but that’s not true of Tollefson’s old stomping ground on the west side of the city, which has been hit.
“It’s devastating to see all the time and effort people put into their business, and how it’s just ruined,” he said. “People are resilient and I’m sure the community will rebound from this. Sometimes, stuff like this brings out the best in people.”
Tollefson heard about the job opening for secondary school principal in Pekin a week before Easter.
“Right away, it piqued my interest,” he said.
Robert and Andrea have lots of family members in southeast Iowa in Sigourney, Conrad, Ottumwa, What Cheer and Blakesburg, and they had the chance to see them for the holiday.
“Mr. Harper was gracious enough to let my kids tour [Pekin school] over Easter. That tells you the kind of person he is,” Tollefson said.
Tollefson said he’s excited to return to Pekin and become an active member of the community. He’s gained plenty of life experience in the years since he last taught a class at Pekin, and he hopes he’s wiser for it.
“If I had it to do over, I would probably listen more,” he said. “All your struggles just melt away when kids realize how much you care for them.”