When La Cañada High School sophomore Kara Thompson got an assignment in history class to interview people about what defines humanity, one of the first people she sought out was Todd Kissel.
She'd never had a class with the seventh-grade math teacher, but was sure he'd have a good answer. In his 31 years at LCHS 7/8, Kissel, known affectionately by students as Mr. K, has garnered a reputation for being a homespun philosopher who genuinely cares about students.
"My question to you is: What defines humanity?" Thompson asked, having found him Monday during third period.
"Respect," Kissel answered, not missing a beat. "That's it. Because that's what ties everybody together."
Whatever our differences, he explained, we can all learn from our unique viewpoints, and so value one another through respect.
"Thank you," Thompson replied. "That's probably the best answer I've gotten so far."
After 39 years of teaching in La Cañada, this is Kissel's last. In September, he announced his retirement to the surprise of students, teachers and community members alike, who'd let themselves entertain the notion that Mr. K might just make good on his oft-repeated promise to "stay until 2040."
Taking the advice of a retired friend, who said he'd get a feeling when he was ready to leave, Kissel, 66, began the year with no plans to retire. Then he had what he calls a "damned good year" and remembered retired UCLA Coach John Wooden's advice to leave at the top of your game. That's when the feeling struck.
"I thought, this is the best," he said.
A teacher who's worn many hats — from coaching football and varsity softball to teaching at Palm Crest and La Cañada elementary schools as well as the now-closed Foothill Intermediate School — Kissel considers his career an unforgettable journey.
"This is the greatest profession you could ever have," he said. "You don't get rewards like this anywhere else. I call them the MasterCard moments, they're totally 'priceless.'"
Early on in his career, after obtaining his degree in 1973, Kissel moved from fourth to sixth grade, and then to second grade, with a short stint teaching kindergarten. When Palm Crest temporarily closed in 1982, due to declining enrollment, he told his supervisor he'd never teach at an intermediate school.
"Any words you say make sure they're sweet, because you might have to eat them," jokes the teacher, who's taught seventh-grade ever since.
Seventh-graders are at a unique stage in their development, Kissel said. For the first time, they are capable of applying the principles behind educational concepts in new ways.
"You're allowing them to be the learner, to take control of the journey called school," he explained. "My job is to guide the ship. To do that, you've got to put the wind in the sail."
Kissel estimates he's seen some 5,000 kids come through his door at LCHS. But the impact he's made on the local community extends far beyond the attendance rosters.
Take, for example, Jamie Lewsadder, a sophomore English teacher at LCHS. She came to the school in eighth-grade and graduated in 1994, regretting she'd never had Kissel as a teacher.
When she came back five years ago as a teacher, Lewsadder was thrilled to get to know him as a colleague and benefit from his sage advice on the art of teaching.
"I appreciate the things he taught me about how to be a better teacher," Lewsadder said. "He's the epitome of being there for the kids."
LCHS 7/8 Principal Anais Wenn agrees. In three years of her working with Kissel, he's been the first to greet her in the morning and the last to wish her a good night.
"Todd loves kids and has touched the lives of thousands of students who have come through his classroom over the last four decades," she said in an email interview. "He has taught generations of La Cañada families and is loved by them all."
La Cañada Unified School Board member Andrew Blumenfeld, himself a former pre-algebra student of Kissel's, wished him well in his retirement.
"I think the district has benefited tremendously from having him in that position," he added.
And as for Thompson, she's just glad to have known the legendary Mr. K in her time at LCHS.
"It's kind of rare to find a teacher who really cares about students," she said. "It's nice to have somebody who really talks to you, and not just about the subject. I'm going to really miss Mr. Kissel."
Kissel, overhearing Thompson, smiles warmly before adding, "Run that MasterCard again."