As Dr. Bernadine Knittel reflects on the many years she has spent as a school counselor at Thompson Valley High, it’s clear she is just as committed to supporting students now as she was over two decades ago when she started.
“These students, I’m honored to be a part of their story and their journey through high school,” explains “Bernie,” as she is known throughout Thompson School District. “It’s tough to get through high school. A lot of them are dealing with a lot, even outside of school. When people ask me how my kids are, I ask, ‘which ones?’”
Bernie’s journey to becoming Dr. Knittel began years ago, when as a young child she loved playing school and “teaching” her younger cousins. Though neither of her parents had gone to college, they were adamant that their children would have degrees. “Education has always been stressed to me. I was the first one on both sides of my family to actually graduate (from college). It was always instilled in me as a young person that education was important.”
Knittel took the support and encouragement from her parents and ran with it, starting with an associate’s degree, then earning a bachelor’s degree in business. After teaching for three years, she was accepted to a master’s program in counseling, and from there, she knew she wouldn’t stop until she also had a PhD.
“Getting a PhD was my goal. I wanted to earn that degree to open up other opportunities, like teaching at the collegiate level, and expanding my knowledge and skill set,” she explains. It took seven years to get her doctorate, working full-time as a counselor at TVHS the whole time. Today, Bernie teaches several classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Colorado, but she has never lost her passion for counseling high school students at Thompson Valley.
“By nature, I’m a pretty loyal person. Once I’m set, I’m set,” Bernie says. “You start building relationships with families. Just being in this area for 27 years, I now have the children of people I taught back in high school. It becomes your family. This is my second home.”
Knittel’s genuine love for TVHS is evident as she describes the uniqueness of the school and its students and staff. “I think we have a really diverse population in terms of interests. Our boundaries extend all the way up to the foothills. We pull from a pretty big area. There’s a lot of staff here that also went to school here, several faculty who have a connection to TV.”
As she begins her twenty-second year at the school, Dr. Knittel reflects on the many changes she has seen, and she is candid as she talks about the challenges facing students in our schools today. “The biggest challenge right now is navigating everything happening in our world right now: The pandemic, the political tension, back-and-forth transitioning.”
She also points to social media and the internet as both a blessing and a curse that today’s students face on their journey through high school. “They are bombarded by social media, and it’s not all negative, but I don’t think we had any idea how this was going to impact them. They might be socializing, but in a different way,” she says. “We try, as a system, to put some restraints on it, but if we don’t come together collectively, school, family and community, I’m not sure how we are going to win that one. It’s a systemic issue.”
Still, Knittel is up for the challenge, and her pride in her students is evident in the pictures of them that fill the walls of her counseling office at TVHS. She lives in Greeley, and though it’s very clear talking to her how devoted she is to supporting her students, she also believes in taking time for herself, her husband and her grown children. She enjoys camping with her husband and their two rottweilers in their camper, as well as regularly doing Crossfit. “You have to have self-care. As counselors, we’re the caretakers, but we need to take care of ourselves if we’re going to take care of others. Our work’s important, but so is our family life. That’s so important in the helping professions.”
As she nears a point where she could retire from working in the school district and pursue other career goals, for Bernie, the sky is the limit when it comes to what comes next. “I think everybody just needs to have that next goal. It’s part of what keeps you going,” she explains. “My dad is 77, and he still works. I say to him, Dad, why don’t you retire? He says, ‘I need to have purpose.’ We’re always reaching for that next purpose.”