Susan TeHennepe looks back on her last 33 years teaching with the Pine River-Backus and Backus school districts with the "it takes a village" proverb in mind. She should know, given where she came from.
Tehennepe wasn't born in Minnesota, but she doesn't remember the short time when she and her family lived in Wisconsin. She does remember growing up and graduating from the tight-knit community of Leonard, north of Bemidji. With only 52 residents, it was virtually impossible not to form important bonds with neighbors. There are still reunions where everybody, whether 10 years younger or 10 years older, gets together to share memories.
"We were the entertainment for the town," TeHennepe said, referring to her big family.
TeHennepe is the second of five children, seven counting TeHennepe's adoptive siblings. Her younger siblings wound up being part of what brought her to Backus.
TeHennepe always wanted to be a teacher, especially thanks to her third grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson.
"Everything she did made me want to be a teacher," TeHennepe said. "She included everybody. She found different ways to show people to do things. Each one of us felt special with her. She made us feel like we were the most important person in the room. Every other person in my class felt the same way."
Her certainty was only solidified by a high school program where TeHennepe tutored for a year, and for a single day in spring she received the opportunity to lead a classroom full of students.
"It gave you an opportunity to see before college, and it confirmed everything," TeHennepe said.
TeHennepe graduated from Clearbrook-Gonvick High School in 1981 and Bemidji State University in 1985. She sent applications to schools in southern Minnesota, Texas, Bemidji and Backus. She contemplated Bemidji because it was the community where she spent her college years, and it was close to home.
When she visited Backus, however, something hooked her. It was a strong support system that was immediately visible.
"When I went for the interview I didn't think I would do that one," TeHennepe said. "I had three different places I was trying to decide between. When the principal called me, it just felt right. I met a couple paras who were so welcoming and warm. I'm glad. It was the right choice for me. Julian and Diane Norlin happened to be stopping in the hallway that day. I felt this was a welcome and open school and I wanted to be here."
It was originally just a pit stop in TeHennepe's plans, but plans change.
"My younger siblings were in sports and I wanted to be able to watch them yet," TeHennepe said. "I was going to work in the Backus school district for one year, and 34 years later, here I am."
TeHennepe has taught second, third and fourth grades almost an equal number of times since starting. She also tutored and led various programs like Accelerated Readers and Power Learners.
Reflecting on what made Pine River-Backus her lifelong career choice, TeHennepe kept coming back to the support system, including the fellow teachers who shared lessons and experiences, the paraprofessionals who helped manage sometimes excited elementary school students, technology staff who helped her keep caught up with changes and volunteer "grandmas" who provide support in many ways for teachers and students alike.
"Sometimes if a student needed a little extra affection they could sit next to the grandma in the classroom and get the extra support they needed," TeHennepe said. "It's a different support than a teacher. It calms them down and I think sometimes they just need that."
TeHennepe thanked former students, many of whom often returned to her classroom to help her as early as fourth grade when her former students get the option to help lead stations in specific lessons, or in eighth grade, or even when they have gone on to graduate from college and become teachers themselves.
TeHennepe said one adult former student spent almost an entire school year volunteering in her class.
"I've appreciated all the support," TeHennepe said. "I've had a whole room full of adults. It's that whole village feeling."
TeHennepe treats her classes like family, and when her students leave her grade level she keeps an eye out for them. They often keep her informed on their life events as well, especially when it comes to using the German she once taught them, but also for other events.
"I love getting graduation announcements, wedding announcements and birth announcements and being involved. I get invited to so many homes for meals," TeHennepe said. "I still see them and care about what happens to them. Once you've had a student you get to spend so many hours a day with them and you get to do so many cool things with them. It's hard to let them go. I appreciate being kept in the loop. I love to hear from former students and get to see them out and about. That's the icing on the cake."
TeHennepe might consider long-term substitute positions in the future, but for now she plans to simply enjoy time off in Minnesota for a year, then within the next five years she plans to cross some destinations off her bucket list, including Alaska, the only state she has not visited.
She also plans to read and not feel guilty about not preparing lessons, and she intends to finally attend a Twins baseball game at Target Field, visit family overseas and babysit for other friends and family.
Whatever she goes on to do, she will always be a teacher at heart.
"We get to spend so many hours with students and we are entrusted to keep them safe and to guide them," TeHennepe said. "It's been an honor and a privilege to do that."