Some people consider themselves lucky when they have a clear career goal in mind by the time they graduate from high school. Some luckier individuals know their life plan much sooner than that.
"When I was in kindergarten we wrote kindergarten biographies," said Pequot Lakes Teacher of the Year Nikki Stark. "I wrote that I wanted to be a teacher. I've always known I wanted to be a teacher. What I wanted to teach changed as I got older."
Stark wanted to teach elementary school students until she was in high school, when she had her eye on chemistry. That changed while she was attending Bemidji State University.
" The people and community in Pequot, the teachers, administrators and the whole community, just stepped up and helped me through was was really a hard time. "
— Nikki Stark.
"I was still in the chemistry field but I really connected with my math professors," Stark said. "One of my parents' best friends, Jim Boos, was a math teacher here in Pequot. I student taught with him and I got hired after and never left."
Stark didn't travel far from where she grew up. She was born in St. Cloud and lived there until her father got a promotion with Farmers Insurance when she was in third grade. They moved to Brainerd, where her mother worked at Herberger's from the day the department store opened until the day it closed.
"We grew up mostly in the country," Stark said. "I loved always having dogs and cats. As a family we went on several vacations. My favorite place to go was Disney World, so we went there a few times. Otherwise we've been to California and just kind of traveled, nothing too exciting. Typical family stuff."
Also moving to Brainerd as a third-grader was a boy named Brian Stark, someone she kept in touch with for years.
"We actually met at church in third grade in Sunday school," Stark said of her husband. "We went to school together through high school and went to separate colleges. We were friends all the way through and then we reconnected after we both became teachers here in the area."
It was perhaps more natural, then, that Stark would take so naturally to Pequot Lakes School and continue to work there for the past 26 years.
"When I student taught here I loved Pequot," she said." "I only applied to Brainerd and Pequot because I kind of knew I wanted to stay in this area. When I got the job at Pequot I was just so excited."
Not only was it close to home, it also felt welcoming, like family.
"When my first child was born there were a lot of medical issues," Stark said. "And the people and community in Pequot - the teachers, administrators and the whole community - just stepped up and helped me through what was really a hard time."
Due to constant checkups and surgeries for her son for nearly two years, Stark missed a lot of work and needed a lot of help, but she always felt supported.
"They just worked with me and said, 'We will support you through this'," she said. "And I just feel loyal to Pequot and feel they took care of me, so I will never leave them."
That son is now 21, going on to be a senior at St. John's University in the fall of 2021 in an education program. After all, his mother is a teacher in Pequot Lakes and his father teaches fifth grade in Brainerd. It isn't uncommon for teachers to raise kids who become teachers.
As is almost required of those who live in the Brainerd lakes area for a long time, the Stark family enjoys the outdoors and little things. They garden and take it easy as a family outdoors. In the winter, Stark likes to hunker down and build puzzles indoors.
" He was very kind and really always put the students first. I felt that was really important. Watching him teach, it was like an art form. I learned so much about being a teacher from him. "
— Nikki Stark.
In her time at Pequot Lakes, Stark has made a name for herself for her challenging but creative approach to math, which is one of the reasons she was recognized as the 2021 Teacher of the Year on May 10.
"Her creative mind as it relates to math makes geometry enjoyable and applicable to her students," her nomination said. "She was the first in the district to fully implement the flipped classroom and the first at the high school to offer flexible seating to her students. Her infectious enthusiasm for learning makes her a favorite among the students at PLHS. She advocates on behalf of all of her students, always wanting what is best for them."
Those are a lot of the qualities Stark said she recognized in her mentor - Boos - whom she considers very influential.
"He was very innovative in his teaching and he didn't fit that mold of a cranky math teacher," she said. "He was very kind and really always put the students first. I felt that was really important. Watching him teach, it was like an art form. I learned so much about being a teacher from him. Teaching isn't about the teacher. Teaching is about the student and getting them to learn whatever way they need. You put yourself on the back burner and make it about them learning."
If Stark resembles Boos because of her own creativity, it may be because she felt he gave her permission to be creative in class and made her feel good about doing so.
"He made me understand there's no one way to teach, no mold, and you have to form whatever makes you passionate about teaching and that's what you should do," she said. "I wanted to be able to get kids to see that math is out there in a lot of different ways."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.