For 38 years Sue Grab has been a familiar and loved face at Fife High School. Her easy smile and contagious laughter endeared her to fellow teachers as much as her sincere heart for children drew students to her side. It was only a matter of time until she took her retirement but no matter how prepared one can try to be for such an eventuality, Grab will certainly be missed when school starts again this fall.
Not one to seek the center of attention, Grab really didn’t want any fanfare or tearful goodbyes but on June 12 she got a nice surprise when students past and present and some staff she was close to at the high school threw a retirement party for her at the Dacca Barn.
“I was totally surprised. It was very nice – very genuine and sweet,” Grab said.
Having been an ASB advisor for numerous years, Grab said it was great to see students she once taught and there were enough hugs to go around for everyone.
A certified “Jane of all trades” when it comes to being an educator, Grab was involved in so many different areas of the high school during her years there such that her impact on generations of students will be felt for a long time to come.
“Sue Grab is a teacher that kids remember for a lifetime. They may not remember every novel, or grammar rule, but they remember how she nurtured them to be learners.”
“Sue Grab is a teacher that kids remember for a lifetime,” said Fife High School teacher Teresa Hockman. “They may not remember every novel, or grammar rule, but they remember how she nurtured them to be learners. Kids always left her class saying, ‘It was hard, but I learned so much.’ She was the teacher who went to every sporting event, play, music concert, and any after school activity. She supported our kids in all their endeavors. She is the teacher I always want to be.”
From being ASB advisor to helping lead the high school’s annual food drive, Grab just seems to fit in with young people like hand-in-glove.
Superintended Kevin Alfano said Grab epitomizes the educational philosophy of "whole child" education, something Fife strives for as a school district.
“Rather than focus solely on test scores of assessment data, which are both very important, we also think it is very important to provide experiences that help our students grow and become prepared for life after Fife. Sue has become the master of providing leadership opportunities for kids through extra curricular and co-curricular activities and she does it with the high expectations of a drill sergeant but at the same time with the care and love of a mother – that is Sue Grab. Those two things are why the staff, students, parents and I will miss Sue Grab!”
It was through her Communications class that Grab has led students to know how to live and get along with other people and to teach them life skills in general.
“I like kids to know something about where they come from, what the world is like around them – tolerance is huge for me,” she said. “You don’t always have to believe in things, but you should be accepting and willing to listen.”
This teaching philosophy has showed itself plainly in the number of times Grab was named an “influential teacher” by students graduating from Fife’s Indian Education Program. Each year at the graduation ceremony, Native American students are asked to name that one teacher who had the greatest impact on them, and Grab has been that teacher.
“For a lot of Native kids, I don’t think that the general population knows what they have been doing with their own community and the leadership they have shown. It’s amazing,” she said. “Leadership comes from a lot of places and it’s not always the most vocal that make a good leader. There are a lot of quiet, gentle souls out there that can lead the heck out of things. They just need someone to welcome them in.”
Grab went to work for Fife Schools in 1979 as a part-time teacher of English, U.S. history and general math. Even though she had earned a degree in special education from Central Washington University, she was placed with regular education students.
“I was one of those K-12 ‘I can teach anything’ people, but I hadn’t had any dealing with regular ed students,” she recalled. “It was a baptism by fire.”
Grab then worked as a substitute for a time until she was hired as a full-time special education teacher, which she taught for 13 years.
“It was my field of choice – I loved it,” she said but over time the paperwork began to wear on her and she pondered a different form of teaching, ultimately teaching remedial English. This is when she established her Communications class to teach social skills, team building and pre-leadership curriculum, and when she got involved with Fife High’s ASB program.
Grab became known for her always-willing-to-help attitude, as she assisted new teachers in getting acclimated in Fife Schools. This is what she did for Alfano when he came to Fife High School in 1998 to teach social studies, and he still remembers it fondly to this day.
“I was fresh out of college and had only taught for one year in another school district,” he said. “The (Fife) staff at the time was a very ‘veteran’ staff with a lot of experienced teachers. Sue was one of the first staff members to take me under her wing and tell me about the Fife Way. She talked about traditions of Fife and the little things that make our school district unique. She spoke about the history of Fife and the families that have sent generation after generation to our schools. And most importantly, she demonstrated the ‘kid first’ attitude that you see in all FHS staff members.”
Grab has actually known Alfano since he was about 14 years old and worked with her husband, Arnie, in construction.
“I still think of him as that little guy driving a big pickup truck through Buckley – sorta hard for me to call him ‘Mr. Alfano,’” Grab laughed.
Like the Grab’s children Carly and Colby, dad Arnie is also a graduate of Fife Schools and is a teacher in the Auburn School District from where Sue Grab graduated. Carly has been teaching at Hedden Elementary for about 13 years, and Sue and Arnie Grab’s first grandchild is a product of Fife Schools. The word “family” means a lot in Fife Schools – not just birth family, but that familial sense of belonging and inclusion that has been a hallmark of Fife Schools for generations.
“I know we hear quite a bit about ‘a sense of family’ at Fife but it’s very true,” Sue Grab said. “There is a small town, family feel associated with Fife. They used to call Fife ‘Happy Days High’ because everything was toward those values of the old times.”
Never once had Grab thought about transferring to another district in all her years with Fife. She’s hoping to stay in touch now that she’s retired and she has thoughts of offering her teaching expertise as a volunteer at the high school.
She also has plans to do some things that being a full-time teacher prevented her from doing. “I’m going to take an exercise class because I’ve avoided that for 38 years,” she said with a chuckle, and she plans to conquer a longtime adversary as well – algebra.
“In the 9th-grade I got a ‘D’ in algebra. It wasn’t the fact that I got a ‘D’ – it’s that I let something beat me. That has bothered me my entire life so I plan on signing up at a community college and kicking algebra’s butt before I die. I am not going to go to my grave letting algebra defeat me!”
What will she miss the most about reporting for teaching duty every day?
“The kids. Every day is a new surprise. They’re hilarious, they’re fresh, they’re insightful. Some of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard have come from a student and they didn’t even realize that what they were saying was that powerful.”
She’ll miss her adult school chums as well. “I have worked with some amazing educators, far superior to me. I don’t think we get to see that in our profession enough. I will miss watching them do their crafts. (The late Fife Superintendent) John McCrossin used to say there is an art to teaching and a science to teaching. You can learn the science but it’s the rare person that knows the art. I’ll miss that.”