BEMIDJI -- Recently retired Bemidji teacher Susan Richards joined the ranks of Teacher of the Year award recipients during the Bemidji Education Association’s annual all-faculty meeting on Wednesday at Bemidji High School.

Having taught in the district the past 34 years, Richards was described by her colleagues as positive, intelligent, empathetic and caring about educating the whole child.

“I’m so overwhelmed and full of joy,” Richards said while delivering her award speech. “There were tons of qualified applicants and I’m grateful.”

Richards started teaching first grade at JW Smith Elementary before transferring to Riverside School where she taught for seven years. She continued on to Deer Lake to teach kindergarten for three years, then settled at Northern Elementary where she taught for 22 years.

Richards had many irons in the fire throughout her career, including being a volleyball referee, fifth-grade talent show coordinator, fundraising organizer and student council advisor, among many other activities.

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Susan Richards speaks after being named Teacher of the Year by the Bemidji Education Association on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Susan Richards speaks after being named Teacher of the Year by the Bemidji Education Association on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

With her retirement starting this year, Richards concluded her speech by wishing all current district employees a great school year.

“My dad had a quote, ‘every day is a great day, some are just better than others.’ Today is a great day. Have a great school year,” Richards said.

Other awards of the morning

Also during the event, Norm Carlson was awarded Lay Educator of the Year with his position as a foster grandparent at Lincoln Elementary.

Carlson was described as having a kind heart, being patient, and passionate about helping others in addition to being a great storyteller.

As he was unable to attend the ceremony, another Lincoln Elementary staff member accepted the award on Carlson’s behalf.

The Support Professional of the Year award was given to the Health Paraprofessional Team who was recognized for their efforts this past year in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and keeping the school safe and informed about the virus.

“They provided their fight, which allowed our schools to limit community spread,” said Kate Pearson, chair of the Bemidji Education Association.

Thirteen members of the Health Para Team accept their awards for Support Professional of the Year from the Bemidji Education Association on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Thirteen members of the Health Para Team accept their awards for Support Professional of the Year from the Bemidji Education Association on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Pearson detailed the paras’ responsibilities as including conducting contact tracing, disinfecting classrooms where COVID-positive cases were confirmed, calling families about student infections and providing assistance at testing sites among other duties.

These paras include Courtney Brock, Gene Dillon Elementary; Heidi Fladeboe, Horace May Elementary; Kerry Frauenholtz, St. Philip's Catholic School; Heidi Hatfield, Bemidji Middle School; Jennifer Jacobson, Lincoln Elementary; Rachel Johnson, all District 31 schools; Crystal Ludwig, Horace May Elementary; Robin Peterson, Bemidji High School; Ronda Sanders, JW Smith Elementary; Terah Snobl, Gene Dillon Elementary; Deanna Sorenson-Halverson, Solway Elementary; Stephanie Wendorff, Paul Bunyan Center; and Jennifer Workman, Northern Elementary.

All award recipients received an engraved plaque and keychain, a gift certificate to a local restaurant and a floral arrangement.

Employee recognition

In addition to these awards, employees who have served for 15, 20, 25 and 30 years were recognized along with new staff members.

With the start of a new school year coming up Tuesday, Sept. 7, Superintendent Tim Lutz was excited to see everyone’s masked faces and to celebrate the school’s tenacity this past year going into a new one.

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz addresses teachers and staff during the Bemidji Education Association awards on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz addresses teachers and staff during the Bemidji Education Association awards on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at Bemidji High School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“What we did last year worked, so I’m confident we can do it again this year,” Lutz said at the beginning of the ceremony. “I know it was hard. I know how hard you worked and I thank you.”

Several other staff members spoke throughout the ceremony to provide updates on the district’s upcoming referendum vote, project funding opportunities and their hopes that this year will be the best one yet.

“As we look to the future, I look back at this past year,” School Board Chair Ann Long-Voelkner said. “(This year) will be similar, yet it will be different. I hope that this year is filled with learning and joy.”