By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Emma French wears a big smile — one without two front teeth — in her kindergarten class picture.
That was 17 years ago at Skyline Elementary School in Lake Stevens.
On Tuesday, in the same classroom and with the same teacher she had as a kindergartner, “Miss French” read a story.
She shared the lesson of the book “Crafty Chameleon,” which is that “brains are often better than strength or size.” And she helped as the students cut out and colored their own paper chameleons.
French, 23, is a student teacher in Bill Kusler’s kindergarten class. And yes, “Mr. Kusler” is there — with darker hair in that 1996 class photo.
“This is tough for me because I love teaching so much,” said Kusler, 57, who stayed in the background Tuesday morning as French held the children’s attention.
A 2009 graduate of Lake Stevens High School, French earned her education degree from Mayville State University in North Dakota. She’ll be certified to teach in that state after successfully finishing her student teaching. Earlier this year, she completed 10 weeks in a first-grade class at Skyline.
“She’ll spend five weeks in my class, until school gets out for winter break,” Kusler said. French had put in a request to student teach in the Lake Stevens School District. When Kusler saw his former pupil’s name in an email, he was glad to oblige.
“One of the biggest joys of teaching is watching your former students grow up,” he said.
On the walls of Skyline’s Room 136 are pictures of every kindergarten class Kusler has taught in his 20-year career. “People come back and look for their siblings,” he said.
French, who is staying with her parents in Lake Stevens while student teaching, has two younger brothers. Jonathan and Arie French both had Kusler for kindergarten. He is the only man teaching kindergarten in the Lake Stevens district.
“I remember always singing and dancing in his class,” French said. “Mr. Kusler, to this day, loves to play guitar for the class. He is always incorporating music — even for the letter of the week.”
Kusler’s high-energy teaching style was in evidence Tuesday when, after some quiet instruction, kids had a chance to shake it up by dancing to a kiddie version of “Surfin’ USA.”
Kindergarten is much more academic than it was decades ago. Students today learn to read in kindergarten. “They get a little wiggly,” Kusler said. “If they’re getting really wiggly, that’s telling me I need to change something up. I use a lot of music, and get up and do dancing or creative drama. It’s still part of the academics.”
After French read the chameleon story, Kusler joined kids in acting out the motions of the book’s animal characters. Drama and dance come naturally to this teacher who also rides his bike to school, rain or shine. It’s a 9-mile round-trip commute from his Snohomish home.
Acting wasn’t his first career. Kusler, who became at teacher at 37, previously worked at his family’s business, Kusler’s Pharmacy in Snohomish. He was lured into teaching after volunteering in his oldest daughter’s kindergarten class. “It was so great,” Kusler said.
For 6-year-old Gavin Eidson, it’s a bonus having two kindergarten teachers. “I like when they help out,” the boy said. It’s two times the help, but still school. Gavin said the best part of kindergarten is “going out to recess.”
Although Skyline has one all-day kindergarten class, a tuition program, Kusler teaches two half-day classes, morning and afternoon, every school day.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “In kindergarten, you’re not taking papers home to grade. But here at school, you’re 100 percent on all the time.”
He is impressed by the confidence and zeal French brings to class.
“I remember Emma as a student. She was kind of the perfect student — sweet, attentive and excited about learning,” Kusler said. “It’s such a joy to see her as passionate about teaching as I am.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.