Retirees Take Different Paths
Three long-time Britton-Hecla educators with over a combined century of service will be retiring at the end of the school year, and they all have one thing in common – they didn’t grow up planning to be a teacher.
Mary Cusick has spent 42 years in various educational roles with 33 of those as a first grade teacher. Deb Hannasch has spent her entire career at Britton-Hecla, teaching special education for 38 years, and during Bev Dinger’s 32-year career she has taught every level from K-8 except for third grade.
All three will be wrapping up their long-time careers next Wednesday when students are dismissed for the summer.
Teaching was the last thing that Cusick ever thought she would do, but now she wouldn’t trade those 42 years for anything.
“The most rewarding things have been working with the children – just to hear their stories, see their personalities, and watch them when the things they have struggled with all year suddenly click.”
Cusick, a 1973 graduate of Sargent Central (ND) High School, had thought about going into business law and becoming a lawyer, but there was one problem – she hated school.
“My mother had to fight with me every day to go to school, and never ever was it in my mind to be a teacher. It kind of happened by accident. I got a job working for Head Start and found I liked the classroom and children.”
She spent four years with the Head Start program, four years substitute teaching for K-6 in Britton, and for the last 34 years has been teaching in Britton with 33 of those years as a first grade teacher.
You can’t teach first grade without accumulating a whole bunch of stories, and Cusick has plenty of memories.
“The class was watching the Challenger spaceship launch, not knowing the tragedy that was about to occur. Upon explosion of the craft, a long-standing book shelf chose that exact time to crash to the floor with books flying throughout the classroom. The students’ expressions at the time showed they understood the impact of the moment and probably still remember the feelings and emotions to this day. That was certainly an unrehearsed teachable moment.”
Then there was the time she had to deal with some bad language on the playground.
“As the students were coming in from recess, some were sharing that one of their peers had said a word on the playground that wasn’t to be used in school. Of course, they had to share the word quite loudly with the others in the coat room. While quickly trying to stop this conversation from going any further, I got everyone seated so I could have a private conservation with “the little culprit.” As we were having our conversation, the student innocently looked up at me with huge innocent eyes and tells me, ‘But I don’t even know what --- means.’ Try to keep a straight face through that one!”
Cusick always tried to tailor her teaching to each of her students.
“I would hope that my students knew that I looked at them as an individual and not as a group, worked to get each of them as far as they could grow, and that I really cared about them. I just love to see that growth, especially in reading.”
“Dedication is definitely the perfect word to describe Mrs. Cusick,” said B-H Elementary Principal Kyla Richter. “Over the years, she has poured hours and hours of time and energy into her students and is constantly looking for ways to incorporate new methodologies into her instruction. She is admired by her colleagues for her love of teaching and her commitment to students.”
Technology has been the biggest change in her 42 years, not only in the classroom but also the way that it allows teachers to share ideas.
“My advice to a new teacher would be to always look for new techniques and depend on your co-workers. You can get wonderful ideas from them, and it’s so much easier now. Computers have been wonderful for sharing.”
Retirement will allow Cuskick to spend more time taking care of four grandchildren and enjoying Mother Nature at Clear Lake where she still waterskis on occasion and enjoys snowmobiling. But as the next school year rolls around, she knows her thoughts will be in that first grade classroom.
“I think when school starts again in August is when it is going to hit me. There have already been a few weekends and moments when I’ve had a few tears. Teaching has been my life.”
When Britton Guidance Counselor Robert Pearson asked what Deb Hannasch wanted to be, she had a ready answer – an air traffic controller.
“I always loved airports and airplanes, and any time we would get to Minneapolis we would go to the airport and just watch the planes,” said the 1976 Britton High graduate. “Then I heard that the suicide rate was high for air traffic controllers because it is very stressful, but after teaching a few years I remember saying to myself, ‘It couldn’t be any more stressful than this.”
It was her sister, and indirectly her father, that steered Hannasch towards special education.
“My sister was the practical one and said I would always have job security because schools were always looking for special ed teachers,” said Hannasch, who didn’t have any real contact with special ed teachers growing up but pointed to long-time Britton educators Karen DeVine and Ginny Anderson as role models. “I also always felt for those kids that were kind of the underdogs.
“My own Dad went through eighth grade and couldn’t spell to save his life, but he could spell phonetically. He wrote a book that I could read beautifully and transcribed for him. I thought if he could write a book without knowing how to spell, what could I do?”
Hannasch earned her teaching degree from Northern State University in 1980 and, true to her sister’s prediction, immediately began her 38-year special education teaching career in Britton.
“I always wanted to be in Britton. I like the area, and it’s beautiful here. Although, those winters…..”
Hannasch has seen some good changes in the special ed field during her long tenure.
“I don’t think there is the stigma attached to special ed as much now. I also think we’re a lot better at identifying kids that need help earlier through better testing and the referral process. If a teacher suspects something they can bring it to our team and we get started on it.”
Hannasch said teaching special ed is definitely a “team effort” and cited her teammates Rachelle Kilker and Gabrielle Amacher. She also noted the importance of providing a consistent learning environment.
“I would hope that my students would describe me as kind and calm and consistent. Everything is very structured so they know what they are doing every day. And as a teacher you have to keep learning. Everything changes.”
“Mrs. Hannasch has played such an integral role in our special education department,” noted Richter. “We have relied heavily on her expertise and ability to look at a child as an individual and generate ideas based upon these specific needs. Her cool, calm and collected personality is a staple in our school and will be greatly missed.”
The long-time educator doesn’t plan to totally retire. Plans include doing some subbing and watching her four grandkids.
“I’ll be catching up on all those things I let slide for 38 years. I don’t think the walls have seen paint for 20 years,” she said with a chuckle. “But come September I don’t know if I’ll be skipping down the road or feeling sad.”
But her 38-years of service to the “underdogs” will always remain close to her heart. That was evident when asked about special stories during her career, and Hannasch started to tear up when thinking of all those moments.
“I think the most rewarding thing for me has been teaching those kids that you didn’t think would ever be able to learn to read, and they did.”
Dinger had been raising her kids and ran a daycare for a time before her husband’s uncle told her she was going to be a teacher.
“He was about 60 years old and came over one day and said he was going to college,” recalled Dinger. “He also said, ‘You are coming with me and you are going to be a teacher.’”
So that’s what she did. Ten years after she graduated in 1972 from Alexander (ND) High School she attended Northern State University and earned her elementary and reading specialist degrees, later going on to get her master’s. Her first teaching job was in Hecla until the school reorganized with Britton in 2002 and she became the fourth grade teacher.
She has always had a special love of science.
“If I could have taught just one subject it would have been science. One of the most rewarding things I was able to do was go to the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and work with NASA people down there for three weeks. I also ran a Science Club in Hecla after school.”
Dinger grew up in the oil fields in North Dakota, moving from place to place. She met her husband when visiting an aunt between Frederick and Hecla, and that is what brought her to the Hecla area.
For Dinger it has always been about the kids, and her advice to a new teacher would be to make sure the kids always come first.
“I always want the kids to have fun when they learn. It can’t always be fun, but I want them to know that there are fun things that happen. But with all the state requirements it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”
“It’s not uncommon to see Mrs. Dinger in the hallway, making her way toward the computer lab or the science closet,” said Richter. She has created a technology-centered environment, and she doesn’t hesitate to jump into a program that will enhance the learning of her students. Her love of science is an equal passion of hers, and it has been fun watching this passion come to life in her classroom.”
Dinger knows that this fall will be a difficult time for her.
“I will miss the kids terribly, and will especially miss getting to know all those unique personalities and the school atmosphere. But the school is bringing in some wonderful new teachers and it’s time to let the young people take over. I’ve kind of neglected my family and grandchildren, and I plan to spend time with my husband and family and do fun things. We also love to camp, want to do some traveling, and have a cruise planned to Belize in February.”
But don’t discount the possibility of Dinger following in her uncle’s footsteps once again, 36 years later.
“If I was looking for something to do I would go back to college in a heartbeat. I just love learning.”