COKATO, MN Cokato Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Pat Kusler has made the decision to retire at the end of this school year, yet she claims to never have had a job.
“I love what I do,” the soft-spoken teacher said. “It’s an amazing gift and I’ve loved every bit of it.”
Kusler, an area native, and the fourth of nine siblings, is a Dassel-Cokato High School graduate herself.
She always wanted to be a teacher. After earning her degree, she taught in Janesville for six years, then moved to Dassel Elementary and taught fourth grade. She transferred her classroom to Cokato Elementary in 1992, and has been there ever since.
Kusler most enjoyed teaching reading and mathematics. She says she was never a good mathematics student, herself but noted she continued to learn by preparing to teach.
She enjoyed having her students use their new knowledge to teach their own classmates, thereby fostering all students’ understanding.
Kusler got a lot of joy from the decade in which the district “looped” third and fourth grade students. Looping meant she taught students in third grade and then taught the same students in fourth grade the next year.
She loved working with students and their families for two full school years, and spent her summers thinking about how to meet the needs of her students moving from third to fourth grades. “I could hit the ground running,” Kusler said.
Kusler has also enjoyed the month of December, in which her fourth graders each plan for a classroom Christmas store.
The project incorporates many areas of learning.
Students are tasked with making two dozen crafts of their choice at home. They then bring their creations to school, and use math to calculate costs and pricing of the items.
They use artistic concepts to create individual store signs, and progress in language arts by creating commercials for their products. Finally, the much-anticipated store day arrives.
“It looks like there are 24 lemonade stands in my classroom,” Kusler said, explaining each student houses their wares and signage on their own desks.
Kusler said she is grateful every year when her students’ stores open. Community members come out in large numbers to shop.
“Customers line up outside the doors,” she said. “Last year my class earned $700.”
The lessons continue the following day, when students take the money they earned from their stores, get on a school bus, and travel to the local grocery.
In the grocery store, students carry lists of items needed by the local food shelf. With some adult assistance, they budget their money, fill their carts with needed items, get back on the bus, and take their purchases to the food shelf.
Kusler’s classes have been completing this community service project for two decades.
Kusler said the level of parental and community involvement with her students and school is nothing less than outstanding.
“We are really community-supported,” she said of her school. “This community is rich in family values, and that has been a real gift.”
Kusler said it is not unusual to have 100 percent family participation for school conferences and open houses. “The parents are just so involved,” she said.
Kusler said she has always felt humbled to be a part of such a strong community. “The parents and community have entrusted these students to me,” she said. “I know I gave it everything I had. I hope I have had a small piece in their formation.”
Kusler has been teaching for 38 years, and estimated she had 900 students go through her classroom.
Things have changed throughout those decades. “The world is a very different place,” Kusler said.
Kusler said teaching methodologies are always changing as research reveals more and more about learning styles.
She said most people understand that constantly changing medical findings and concepts are common. Some people, however, don’t understand that educational research and concepts change in a similarly rapid fashion. “We’ve learned so much about the brain,” she said.
Kusler is a life-long student herself. “I’ve taught for 38 years,” she said. “And there’s not one year I haven’t learned and done things differently. I never feel like I’m done. I’m always a learner.”
Some other changes Kusler has witnessed through the years are more concrete. She remembered using reel-to-reel films, film strips, phonographs, and tape recorders during her earlier classroom days. Now, Kusler notes, it’s all about smart boards, Google, and YouTube.
Among the things that have brought Kusler the most satisfaction are seeing how her pupils go forward to good careers and happy lives. “I’ve had so many successful students,” she said.
Some of her students who are now in high school come back to her classroom to visit, tutor, or just pop in for a hug.
Kusler is delighted that approximately a dozen of her former students have gone on to teaching careers of their own.
She also said watching former students struggle with life can be difficult, but seeing them work hard for success is inspiring. “They have no idea what that means to a teacher,” she said.
Kusler said the first day of school can be a nervous time as everyone acclimates to their new class and teacher. But she said the last day of school gets tougher each year.
This year may be the most difficult yet.
“I can’t anticipate how it will go,” she commented. “But we will celebrate with my 24 students. It will feel very weird.”
Once her students are dismissed on the last day, and she has cleaned her classroom of decades of lovingly-collected teaching tools, she plans to be “available.”
Kusler explained this means getting to spend more time with her spouse, two sons, her parents, and her six grandchildren. She also is excited to volunteer for her church and community.
Kusler got a little teary as she looked around her classroom.
“I don’t know how I got here,” she exclaimed. “The time has flown. It’s been a gift being in this community and being a teacher. I have loved it.”