There are a lot of things in life that are easy for Marla Zeisler. For example, waking up for work each morning throughout her 30-year tenure as an educator in the Bensalem Township and Philadelphia school districts.
On the other hand, some things are nearly impossible for the Huntingdon Valley native, like retiring from her beloved role as principal of Belmont Hills Elementary School in Bensalem. In fact, she submitted – and retracted – five letters of retirement during the 2018-2019 academic year, each time telling herself she’d stay “just a few more months.”
But on June 30, Zeisler officially said “goodbye” to her second family and retired alongside fellow teachers Kathryn Foote and Debbie Miller. During its June 26 meeting, the board of school directors approved the appointment of Kelly McGowan to succeed Zeisler as principal of Belmont Hills, effective July 1.
For Zeisler, this new chapter of life has been met with bittersweet emotions.
“I was very nervous about retiring because I’d been working for 31 years, and I was concerned about not having a structure or filling my time. But so far, it’s been very enjoyable. I’ve gotten to spend time with my grandchildren, I have seven of them. I get time to exercise. And I’m exploring doing something part-time once the fall starts, so staying in education,” she said. “I get to do things for me, which I never did before.”
At the same time, Zeisler said she deeply misses her “homebase” of Bensalem, and her “second family” – the staff of Belmont Hills and the school district.
“Bensalem Township was an unbelievable place to work for. The whole community is a great community,” she said. “It was like one big family. I really enjoyed my stay. I was very blessed.”
Zeisler’s educational journey began in 1974, when she graduated from Temple University with a degree in elementary education and substituted in Philadelphia and Bensalem. Ironically, one such position was at Belmont Hills. Though she later took some time off to raise her family, Zeisler didn’t stay away from the classroom for long, eventually teaching part-time in the city.
However, one year into her return to the workforce, and part-time roles were basically non-existent. So, for nine years, Zeisler worked full-time as a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia before attending Gwynedd Mercy University for her master’s degree in educational leadership. With this second degree under her belt, Zeisler wanted to take her career to the next level and began applying for principal positions.
Seventeen years ago, Zeisler was hired as the assistant principal of Bensalem’s Neil A. Armstrong Middle School. She also lent her expertise as Bensalem High School’s ninth grade principal and the district’s supervisor of curriculum and instruction.
In July 2006, Zeisler was granted the opportunity to become principal of Belmont Hills. Since elementary education was her ultimate goal, she jumped at the chance without question, and the 13 years that followed are history.
“That’s my homebase, when I think of my home. It’s Belmont Hills,” she said. “I made great friends and I just loved every minute of it. It was a family, a real family.”
Though Zeisler has countless fond memories of her time at Belmont Hills, a few standouts come to mind. One was the implementation of special needs curriculum, which included the construction of a specially-equipped playground.
“We are a very diverse school. We have two autistic support classrooms, two IU autistic support classrooms, two life skills classrooms, two intensive learning support classrooms. At times, fulfilling everyone’s needs was difficult. But there was one child in particular, he’s a highlight for me because I saw such growth,” she said. “He went from being nonverbal in an autistic IU support classroom, to going into an autistic support classroom where he mainstreams in many of his subjects.”
It’ll be hard for Zeisler to forget this student, who gifted his teacher drawings depicting her as various characters, including SpongeBob.
Another standout moment for Zeisler was the chance to hire a fresh, young staff.
“The teachers are phenomenal at the school. They really care about the children. They’re very much team-oriented. They help each other out,” she said. “I think Belmont Hills has the creme de la creme.”
According to Zeisler, her “homebase” is being left in more-than-capable hands, and she has the utmost confidence in McGowan, who formerly served at Belmont Hills as a traveling physical education teacher.
“I think she’ll be a great leader,” Zeisler said. “I feel good that somebody like Kelly is taking over. She’ll take the school and grow it further.” ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com