Rapid River teacher named Teacher of Year for Region 1

Courtesy photo Rachal Gustafson, an elementary and middle school special education teacher at Rapid River Public Schools, stands with two of her fourth grade students as they work on math. From left, is Christina Williams and Lauren Schnurer. Gustafson recently was selected as Region 1 Teacher of the Year and is one of 10 teachers still in the running for Michigan Teacher of the Year.

RAPID RIVER — An elementary and middle school special education teacher at the Rapid River Public Schools has been named Michigan’s Region 1 Teacher of the Year and is still in the running to be selected as the Michigan Teacher of the Year by the State Board of Education.

Rachal Gustafson, a Rapid River native, said she has been teaching for 22 years and is extremely honored to have been nominated.

“Someone had to nominate me first and I do not know who that is. It was an anonymous person and I have been unable to find out who it is despite questioning people — they’re not fessing up. But I’d really like to know who that is, you know I owe them a big debt of gratitude for thinking highly enough of me to nominate me to begin this,” she said.

Gustafson began her teaching career in Wisconsin, but after three years moved back and started working in Rapid River for another three years. She explained when Rapid River downsized due to lower enrollment sizes she went and worked at Bark River-Harris for 10 years.

She said the person who had her position at Rapid River retired, so she reapplied.

“I reapplied back here because I knew the district. I live in this district and my kids go to school here. I knew it was going to be a good fit. You know, I loved working at Bark River-Harris and learned so much over the years that has helped me throughout my whole career. But to be able to kind of come home to Rapid River — it worked out well for my family. So I’ve been here for the past six years. So it kind of came full circle,” Gustafson said.

She explained something she has learned over the years is academics is only one part to teaching and making sure all students feel valued is essential. She said not all students have to go to college and a teacher shouldn’t lose site of that.

“It is important as a teacher to remember students don’t have to be an A-B student as long as they are trying their best,” she said.

Gustafson’s philosophy for teaching is to prepare her students not just academically but for the world.

She said she helps them develop skills like a good work ethic, how to work as a team and how to respect other people’s opinions.

“Because that creates a well-rounded person and that’s what I want for my students,” Gustafson said.

Rapid River Public Schools Superintendent Jay Kulbertis said one of the things that makes Gustafson a phenomenal teacher is she’s a real genuine and caring person.

“She is able to connect with students, parents and staff members so that everyone is able to cooperate and collaborate with her,” he said.

He explained the school is extremely proud of Gustafson for representing the U.P. as Region 1 Teacher of the Year, but also representing Rapid River.

“As a Rapid River representative and U.P. representative, she will continue to stand for what is best for the kids and work hard and never give up on a student,” Kulbertis said.

Gustafson said some advice she would give to a future teacher or current teacher is the title “teacher” is not your only title.

She explained sometimes you’ll have to be a parent, nurse, therapist and disciplinary.

“You have to embrace all roles and be flexible,” she said.

What was planned for the day may not go as expected and that’s okay, and things may go better, Gustafson said.

“If there is a hard lesson you’re teaching and students excel — celebrate those moments with your students,” she said.

After being nominated, Gustafson had to seek out three letters of recommendation, write four essays and send her resume.

“I was kind of on the fence about whether to even proceed when I got the notice about the nomination because really I don’t feel I do anything above and beyond what everybody else does. But I thought, because someone took the time to nominate me the least I could do was at least keep going with the process,” she said.

Gustafson was notified of becoming a semi-finalist in early 2019.

“They liked what I had for part one, so then I became a semi-finalist. So then to continue on I had to write another four essays and do some biographical information,” she said.

Gustafson thought being named a semi-finalist was an honor in and of itself, not knowing she was going to be selected for Region 1 Teacher of the Year.

She said she found out she was one of ten teachers continuing on in the process of being named Michigan Teacher of the Year on April 1. She was in Lansing on April 15 to present in front of a panel and interview for Michigan Teacher of the Year.

“All of the regional winners had to go and do a presentation and then interview, and they’ll choose from the top 10 of us who will be the Michigan Teacher of the Year,” Gustafson said.

As part of being one of Michigan’s ten 2019-2020 Regional Teachers of the Year, Gustafson will represent the whole Upper Peninsula and provide feedback on important education issues and policies on the 2019-2020 Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council (MTLAC).

“It’s quite an honor to be representing all of the teachers in the U.P.,” Gustafson said.

The process takes time and work outside of Gustafson’s already busy schedule, she expressed gratitude towards Rapid River Public Schools and her family for supporting her through the whole experience.

“I would like to thank the Rapid River school for supporting me in this whole process and my family. It took a lot of extra time to do all the essays and all the paper work and I’ve got a really great support system from my work family and from my regular family,” she said.

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