October 8, 2007

School is where their heart is

Dassel-Cokato teachers express why they choose to remain in the school district

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 53 percent of DC teachers have been in the district more than 10 years, while only 9 percent have worked at DC less than three years.

“Many teachers begin their careers here, thinking they will move on, and then end up finding this their home,” said DC Superintendent Jeff Powers.

Sara Nelson graduated from DC in 1988 and sat in the very same high school classroom she now teaches math in.

Nelson has been teaching math at DC for 10 years and has no doubt that what she enjoys most about her job is the kids.

“The kids at DC are very nice kids to work with. They are all very respectful,” she said.

This is due, in part, to the parents’ involvement, she said.

“When parents place an importance on education, that reflects on the students,” Nelson said.

“If students see their parents value what’s going on in the schools, they will see value in the work they do every day in the classroom,” Nelson added.

Hanging outside her classroom door is a sign that reads, “Expect success.”

Students have to believe they can do the math, and her job is to do everything in her power to help them succeed, she said.

Many students have the attitude that math isn’t something they will need and if it’s not easy, they aren’t going to do it, according to Nelson.

“This isn’t 50:50. They have to give 100 percent and I have to give 100 percent. That’s the equation for success,” Nelson said.

The hardest part is getting the students to understand that.

“They need to know that we are there to help them learn and to succeed,” she said.

The greatest challenge for Nelson these days is the increased standards students never had before – raising the bar for everyone, she said.

“Realistically, we are trying to prepare students for jobs that aren’t even invented yet,” she said.

“The challenge becomes, how do we give all students the necessary skills and knowledge base to compete in a global society and a technical world?” she said.

Although Nelson understands teachers and students always have to push to be better, much of the state and federal mandates are test-driven.

“Success is not measured by one single test and one single score on one single day. Education should be about the needs of the learner,” Nelson added.

With these increased standard, Nelson said there is a lot more expected of students these days.

Upon graduation and entering the world, students must be effective communicators, problem solvers, and understand the world issues, Nelson said.

Along with those, they are supposed to have technical skills and apply science and math knowledge.

“We can’t possibly teach them everything, but we can teach them how to learn,” she said.

“[High school] is a small piece of the entire puzzle, but I hope this piece, for them, is a positive one. That’s our goal as teachers,” Nelson said.

Second grade teacher Gail Berggren has taught at Cokato Elementary for 34 years and when asked what she loves most, she said, “Of course, the students and their families.”

“This is such a unique community and the students are excited about learning,” Berggren said.

She told of her teacher friends who work in the Twin Cities where the students, they say, are much tougher.

“Never do I have students who talk back to me. They are very enduring and respectful,” she said.

“When you get the smiles, hugs, and love notes every day, it’s a meaningful place to be,” she said.

Her biggest challenge as a teacher is class sizes. Currently, she has 21 students in her class, but she wouldn’t want more than that, Berggren said.

Prior to Craig Kay’s superintendency and his advocacy for small class sizes, there was a year when she had 29 students in her classroom.

“You just can’t communicate with each child throughout the day when the numbers are against you,” she said.

Working with a small class enables teachers to meet each student’s individual needs, she said.

Although the magic number shown in research is 17, according to Berggren, she finds 21 to be workable.

The number one tool that has helped Berggren in her teaching career has been the parents – parents who respect the educational process and support it, she said.

This does not mean parents have to be in the classroom with her, just so they acknowledge their children are coming to school to learn and are extending this learning at home.

This can be as simple as asking their child what they learned that day, what made them smile, or what was tough for them, Berggren explained.

“This makes all the difference,” she said.

Berggren has three children who all went through the DC school system. Her son, Brice, even works with her as a physical education teacher at Cokato Elementary.

However, she is glad they went through the school system when they did.

Berggren’s children were very involved with extracurriculars that are no longer available for students today, including mock trial and problem solving.

With the cutbacks in class offerings, she feels her children wouldn’t receive the same opportunities, for example in foreign language and math (since her daughter is a math instructor).

Although she worries about DC if the upcoming levy doesn’t pass, she would not hesitate having her grandchildren go through the system.

Second grade teacher, Gail Ganser is beginning her 31st year at DC.

She began at Cokato Elementary, but when some classes were forced to move to Dassel Elementary after the 1992 tornado, that was where she stayed.

Like Berggren, all four of her students are “products” of the DC school district.

Although her husband worked in the cities and she worked here, they both wanted their kids to be raised in this community.

“It’s been a great place for us,” she said.

Being a teacher and coming to school to students’ smiles and such excitement to learn, Ganser can’t imagine a better way to start the day.

“I love the kids,” she said.

What is most challenging about her job as a teacher is trying to meet the needs of every one of her students, she said.

With each one having different learning styles and personalities, it becomes a balancing act, Ganser explained.

“You have to set high expectations without discouraging a child,” she said.

So, what she does is uses laughter and praise to provide a positive classroom environment, Ganser explained.

There is a standard of excellence at Dassel Elementary, she said.

“Excellence” for Ganser is explained as delivering what she thinks is the best to her kids, she said.

“I need to see there is learning taking place and that my students are making great gains in second grade,” Ganser said.

“Everyone is here to do whatever it takes to help these kids learn,” she said.

To do this, teachers work together for the same cause – to see the students succeed, and therefore, they share ideas and establish new methods to deliver curriculum.

At the same time, Ganser wants the students to enjoy learning and have fun with school, she said.

Ganser admits, 20 years ago, class sizes weren’t as crucial, but now with higher standards, students need the extra time and individual attention.

There wasn’t No Child Left Behind and they didn’t have tests to meet the standards, she said.

Now, class sizes do make a difference. This is especially important because by third grade, students need to be independent readers, she said.

Randy Johnson, along with his wife, Lynda, both grew up in Dassel- Cokato and continue to work in the district.

Randy has been teaching applied technology and industrial technology for 12 years at the middle school.

Through his teaching, he has found DC students to be nice and energetic to work with, he said.

The families have been very supportive and good to work with, as well.

What he enjoys most about teaching is watching his students learn something new and use that knowledge to create projects, he said.

There are a variety of projects students work on in fifth through eighth grade such as making things out of wood including names, games, and scale model houses.

Johnson also teaches 3D modeling through a computer program, along with video production and editing.

The classes Johnson teaches are a good way to take the things students have already learned in math and science and apply them to hands-on projects, he said.

Johnson is constantly looking for fresh ideas he thinks will spark students’ interests, he said.

What he finds most challenging is not having enough stations and computers for his students.

“Kids need to have their own station to learn and grasp the information,” he said.

Aside from teaching his students, Johnson said the most important thing for students to know is that the teacher cares about them as an individual, not only as a learner, so he tries to do just that.

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