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The West High bells rang one last time Friday for John Miller, as his teaching career came to an end 32 years after it began in much the same way.

The science teacher, who spent the last 28 years at West, is retiring from School District 2.

"I had a good year," Miller said, but "I didn't want to stay too long," 

For the last year or so, he had considered leaving West, and after some thought, he decided grading papers was losing some of its luster. 

"I never wanted it to seem like work," he said, and "homework was getting to be more and more of a task."

Miller has a lot to show for his time. He's helped bring new classes to West, he's brought experience from his previous career as a fisheries biologist, and about five years ago he and his students began creating a garden in an underused area outside the school. 

While he may not be at the school every day, he plans to continue his love for teaching students about the natural world. 

"I feel a real need to stay connected to my colleagues and the students," he said. "I feel a responsibility to stay involved with it."

He intends to continue volunteering at West, interacting with teachers and students in the garden, the classroom and on field trips.

As a volunteer, he continue doing all of the parts he loves most about teaching with none of the work, he said. "I won’t have to do any planning, I won’t have to grade and I can just interact."

The garden is one of the many manifestations of how Miller and other educators at West have been able to incorporate real-life experiences with their in-class lessons. That kind of education is invaluable, he said. 

"We can learn the science, but there’s this other aspect of nature that you can’t put your finger on," he said. "We only do that by spending time outside. My hope is that students start to feel that."

A total of 51 teachers or specialists and two administrators will retire from the district this year, said Jeana Lervick, the executive director of Human Resource Services for SD2. 

In the 2013-14 school year, about 1,173 part-time and full-time teachers taught students in the district.

The vacated positions will most likely be filled with new educators, she said. "While we are still working on staffing for next year, I anticipate that they will be replaced."

The same teachers may not be in the halls next year, but it's doubtful that their impact on student lives will be forgotten.

Marnie Sweeney, a special education teacher at Lewis and Clark Middle School, said that after 35 years in Billings, she still hears from former students. 

"It’s so gratifying," she said, "because you think 'Maybe I did make an impact.' "

Many of her students have endured traumatic experiences or have behavioral issues, and by working with them in a special setting those kids are able to get back into classrooms with fellow students living normal lives. 

"The kids I work with, they’re average or above-average intelligence," she said. "We just provide a lot of support for them."

It's been hard for her to retire. She wasn't quite ready, she said. But after some contemplation, she's ready to spend more time on trips with her husband and a daughter that lives internationally. 

"It’s bittersweet," she said. "It really has felt like a vocation for me, like this is what I was meant to do."

That sentiment was echoed by the Principal Lance Orner, and Assistant Principal Rob McDonald at Will James Middle school.

The pair are both leaving after 32 years.

"I got into it to be a basketball coach," McDonald said. "I enjoyed the teaching and changing lives a lot more than I ever thought I would."

Next year, Reece Kallfell, formerly an administrator at Lewis and Clark Middle School, will take the helm at Will James. The associate principal's position will be filled by Kim Verschoot, currently an administrator at West High. 

As students filed past McDonald from the playground on their way to dismissal, one asked, "Where are we going?"

"You’re going home," he said. "You don’t want to stay here forever, do you?"

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Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.