Willowbrook Middle School teacher and coach retires after 35 years


Teacher Mike Rhines stands in Willowbrook Middle School in his last of 35 years of teaching.

On May 16, 2024 Mr. Mike Rhines celebrated retirement alongside fellow teacher, Kim Hatfield.  Rhines has taught 5th grade science and math, and 6th grade math, reading, and English in the Prairie Hill School District since 1989, making a difference in the lives of students, faculty, staff, and the community for the past 35 years.

Mike Rhines and long time math teacher Kim Hattfield were celebrated at a retirement party thrown in the school on May 16.

Now, as Rhines packs up his classroom, he is uncovering cherished memories.

Rhines comes from a line of educators, including his father. When he was a child, the Rhines family lived on a small farm 11 miles from Gaylord, Michigan. Rhines attended elementary school in the crossroads town of Johannesburg.

By 5th grade, his family built a small farm closer to Gaylord, near Sparr. Rhines and his sisters attended the Gaylord school district through high school. Rhines graduated in 1984. “I had great teachers in my early grades that made learning fun and interesting,” Rhines said. “Attending Gaylord gave us a great education and foundation.”

After debating where to go to college, Rhines opted to go to Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois.

Growing up on a small hobby farm in 1970’s and early 80’s, with animals and a big garden ("back to nature & the basics," he calls it) Rhines learned about hard work.

Rhines also developed a strong work ethic working at the IGA grocery store throughout high school and later during the summers after returning from college.

“While at college, it was oftentimes a chore to dive into my classes, and studying and applying myself was often a struggle,” Rhines said.

Rhines found motivation and an escape by working jobs in the area and made good money by doing everything from mowing lawns, to trimming trees, and laying paving bricks.

“I was pretty sure that I wanted to teach, and figured I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps as a middle school math teacher, but some of the higher math classes were a challenge for me. Once I settled into elementary education, it opened up for me. I felt more comfortable, and I found that the math classes that I had taken were above and beyond what I would need for teaching in the intermediate and middle school grades.”

After student teaching, Rhines graduated in the fall of 1988. Two weeks later Mike and Cindy got married.

Out of college, Rhines worked at Village Green Home and Garden, potting plants during that winter and later fertilized lawns as part of Village Green’s Barefoot Grass company.

"I spent a lot of time in the evenings at the Rockford Library poring through books to find the names and addresses of schools where I might want to send my cover letter and resume," Rhines said.

Of these, the third was for a teaching position in McHenry County. "That interview went well until the superintendent saw some of my math grades in my early days of college and he decided not to hire me, even though I had pretty much gotten straight A’s my last two years at Trinity," Rhines said. 

“I wrote that superintendent back. While I thanked him for the interview, I also explained that he had missed the opportunity to hire the best teacher he ever would have had. I think that set the stage for wanting to prove people wrong who voted against me succeeding,” Rhines said.

A few weeks later Superintendent Jack Finlen in the Prairie Hill School District offered Rhines a teaching position.

Photo: North Suburban Herald, Sept. 6, 1989

“Though I have been blessed with a host of administrators, Mr. Finlen has continued to be a supportive and interested mentor for me from the very beginning.”

The teachers that Rhines began working with had themselves been a part of the district for many years, some having attended school there. “As one of the newer hires in quite some time, I was actually closer in age to the students, and yet those foundational teachers were pivotal in helping me become the teacher I am today, something that I am grateful for.” Rhines said.

Mary Jury, who was a nun beforehand, taught with Rhines in his first three years.

“Fifth grade teacher Deb Partlow and I did a lot of extra projects together, including the start of the three day/two night 5th grade camp experience, which continues to be a big tradition in our school,” Rhines said. 

Rhines has valued these friendships, long beyond the time each retired, until each passed away.

“Together we became a formidable group that was tough to beat in the crazy staff games we played during pep assemblies! More than colleagues, we developed friendships that extended into our own growing families,” Rhines said.

“Our district motto is 'Students First, Always!' When you have a staff that gets along and is working together to clean, cook, teach, help, organize, and run a district, great things can happen and both the students and community benefit,” Rhines said. 

Mike Rhines (second row) is pictured with the first staff he worked with.

The guys that Rhines has worked with over the years still get together periodically in a group they call the Gulo Adventure Clan (Gulo is the Latin name for wolverine, the school’s mascot).

Rhines coached boys basketball at Prairie Hill for 20 years, and coached girls basketball for eight years at Willowbrook. His wife Cindy joined the staff in 1991, and shared in coaching duties through the 90's until their son and daughter were born.

“I was always a teacher who coached,” Rhines said. “I feel that coaching should be an extension of the classroom in regard to teaching skills, behavior, and character. It’s just that it happens on a court.”

Rhines co-led the Servo Terra Environmental Club and ran the after school intramural program while at Willowbrook.

Former student and current WMS teacher Bailey Craig and Mike Rhines showed their school spirit.

He has been the athletic director since 1990 and was part of the mentoring program for the last few years.

Rhines has organized and run both the school’s Summer Basketball Camp and Summer Adventure Camp, with colleagues Kris DalSanto and Allison Keller.

Each fall Rhines has organized an outing simply called “Creek Walk Day.”

Rhines oversaw prairie burns and organized Bleeding Blue reunions. This spring, the yearly faculty vs. student fundraiser game was renamed “The Tony Barlow Charity Games.”

“I want to show support to my wife for all that she has done for me,” Rhines said.

Rhines also plans to go fishing and camping with friends and family. He also plans to do more writing.

The full staff wished Mike Rhines and Kim Hatfield (bottom row) the best of luck in their future endeavors.

Willowbrook Principal Jaqui Thompson said, “Mike Rhines defines what it means to Bleed Blue in the Prairie Hill School District. Over 35 years he has taught in this district, he came to every one with as much, if not more passion than the year before. He brought dedication, excitement, compassion, and loyalty to every moment he shared with his students. It doesn't feel real that he won't be here in August to kick off another year with us. He will be endlessly missed and as educators we can all only hope to emulate all he has taught us along the way. He truly is one of a kind.”

Bev Barlow said, “Talk about a truly special man, mentor and friend. Without our teachers there would be no doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Mike poured himself into his teaching, working nights, weekends and doing other activities with our kids. He also has a knack for holding on to his sanity while dealing with other people's kids. Behind every successful student is a great teacher.”

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