Dorothy Drury, executive director of the Kalispell Education Foundation (KEF), has one question for her community: “Who’s your favorite teacher?”
“I think it would be hard to find someone who didn’t have a favorite teacher,” Drury said. “Even if you didn’t like school, probably at some point, you had a teacher that was your favorite.”
The Kalispell Education Foundation this year granted three teachers with “Educator of the Year” awards, an honor that recognizes the outstanding work of one elementary, one middle and one high school teacher in the Kalispell Public Schools. Teachers were nominated by parents and students throughout School District 5, and were selected by a panel of high school students who considered the nearly 650 submissions.
KEF and Stockman Bank presented this year’s awards to Halle Fusaro, a fourth-grade teacher at Edgerton Elementary School; Noah Couser, a physical education teacher at Kalispell Middle School; and Stephanie Hill, a French teacher at Glacier High School.
Fusaro, who has worked in the Kalispell Public Schools since she began her teaching career almost a decade ago, told the Beacon she was “totally surprised” to win the award.
“To be honored for a job that you care so much about and are so passionate is about is a really wonderful thing,” she said. “I’m really fortunate to be surrounded by phenomenal educators who have made me better as an educator.”
Currently a fourth-grade teacher at Edgerton Elementary School, Fusaro has bounced between teaching first grade and fourth grade and has worked at both Edgerton and Elrod Elementary School in downtown Kalispell. In nominations sent to KEF, parents praised Fusaro for her constant communication with families, her ability to create individualized learning experiences for students, and her facilitation of a nurturing classroom environment.
“From day one, Miss Fusaro showed nothing but love and attention, all the while teaching the child about respect and boundaries,” one nomination said.
“Addressing each child’s needs, it’s very personalized. Each class is composed of different types of personalities, and it varies from year to year, and as a teacher, you can’t apply the same formula over and over again,” Drury said. “Halle is applauded for really addressing the needs of her class and tailoring how she does school based on the personalities and needs of her students.”
Fusaro said she emphasizes respect as a core tenant of her classroom environment — teaching students to respect themselves, each other and the learning process.
The fourth-grade teacher focuses on “trying to see my students as little human beings that are worthy of my respect and really trying to nurture positive relationships with them.”
“I try to create a culture in my room where you are free to make mistakes and learn from them, and really create a culture of respect,” she said. “It’s not just my classroom, I really try to reiterate to them that it’s our classroom.”
Noah Couser, who is now in his 14th year at Kalispell Middle School, was drawn to education after being raised by two teachers, and knew he “enjoyed working at the middle school level with that demographic of awesome humans.”
In submissions to the foundation, parents and students lauded Couser for his propensity to go above and beyond as a teacher, running an afterschool program, getting active with students during class and teaching lessons that apply inside and outside of school grounds.
“I’m not selling something that I don’t practice. I run with my students, I lift with my students, I work out with them often,” Couser said, discussing how he brings his own love of exercise and wellness into his lesson plans.
“A big part of our life and mental health is physical fitness and getting outside. And, I mean, we live in the best place on the planet for getting out, recreating, experiencing nature and finding stillness in such a crazy world.”
After taking a step back from coaching middle school sports, Couser saw an opportunity to engage students who weren’t necessarily involved in extracurricular sports. This past October, he started an afterschool program called SWET — Students Who Exercise Together — where students work on fitness basics, and are able to try their hand at activities like skiing, hiking, ice skating and trail running.
“Especially for kids that don’t have families that are active, or don’t have families that are heading up to go skiing or doing anything outdoors in the winter, their options are binging TikTok or playing video games for a ridiculous amount of time,” Couser said, calling SWET “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of at Kalispell Middle School in 14 years.”
Stephanie Hill describes herself as a proud product of public schools and, like Couser, was raised by two teachers who inspired her to pursue the profession.
“In my high school yearbook, the only thing I wrote for my senior future was to be a high school French teacher, so it was kind of destined,” she said.
Drury said that students nominated Hill for “Educator of the Year” because of her ability to balance both compassion and high expectations for her high school students.
“They’re transitioning into being adults and it’s really validating the way that Stephanie treats students with not just boundaries, but respect,” Drury said.
Hill said that as a French teacher, she often has students for three or four years, allowing her to build close relationships with them while helping them develop their language skills.
“To be able to have them year after year, and take them from a first word to, ‘hey, you’re ready to go and live in France,’” she said. “It’s an opportunity that I understand is important.”
Working with high school students, Hill is cognizant of the many distractions outside of the classroom, as well as her students’ experience of going to school in the midst of the pandemic. As the world changes around her students, the French teacher said she prioritizes making her classroom a safe and welcoming space.
“Kids never change. They’re always goofy, silly, amazing, young people. I’m very lucky to have incredible kids. But what they deal with and what’s in the community and in our society and culture, that’s what changes,” Hill said.
“I try and emulate what we all want our kids to be. We want kids to be kind, accepting and tolerant, and wanting to explore and be awesome people. I want to create that in my classroom, so that way they can go out and emulate that into the world,” she added. “My rule always is, I want my classroom to be that happy place.”
Hill expressed gratitude for Drury and the work of the Kalispell Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds educational programs in School District 5.
“When our expectations for our kids are high, and our expectations for our teachers are high, I think it’s often when a bump comes that you tend to show up, and maybe not always know when the time is to celebrate,” Drury said about the “Educator of the Year” program. “It’s just been really great to be able to give back to our teachers in this way.”
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