Moving to Fountain at the age of 2, Mason County Eastern teacher Dena Thurston was exposed teaching early in life and followed in the footsteps of two people she admired very much.
“My parents were teachers,” Thurston said. “My mom taught and retired from MCE as an elementary teacher and my dad taught and retired as a math teacher and coach at Manistee MS/HS. I graduated from MCE in 1984, so I attended the same school where my mom taught.
“In later years, my son Tyler also attended MCE while his mom taught there. We both had our moms as teachers.”
After graduating high school, Thurston had her mind set on attending college, but she didn’t really consider teaching as a career path for herself.
“I attended Ferris State College, as it was called then, in 1989,” she said. “I tried to buck the family teacher plan, so I enrolled in a paralegal program with hopes of maybe attending law school. Close to the end of my sophomore year, I wasn’t satisfied with the way my plan was turning out. I came home to ponder my next move. My father’s advice at the time was very simple, ‘get back to Ferris and figure this out.’
“I met with a counselor and finally succumbed to the notion that teaching was in my blood and I shouldn’t deny it any longer. I chose to major in secondary business education with a minor in English. My grades and attitude changed immediately and I knew I had made the right decision.”
With hopes to land a job back in the county where she grew up, Thurston started applying for jobs and did a lot of substitute teaching after graduating from Ferris.
“I graduated from FSU in the middle of a school year, so I spent the beginning of 1989 subbing locally as often as I could,” she said. “In the fall of 1989, I was one of two candidates for a teaching job in Tekonsha, Michigan. This is still a very small rural school in southern Michigan sandwiched between Coldwater and Marshall. During the six years I was there, I taught everything from English to accounting.”
She said she was also tasked with coaching junior girls basketball, being a class advisor, and starting a varsity softball program from scratch and becoming their first-ever coach.
“In addition, I was getting married the next year, so I was planning a wedding. I would never advise any new teacher to take all of this on in year one. Pacing yourself is key to this game.”
When Thurston and her husband welcomed their son into the world, they knew it was time to move back to Mason County and into a home they were quite familiar with.
“After teaching, coaching and getting married, we had a baby boy in 1994 and decided to move back to Mason County, where my husband Kevin and I both grew up,” she said. “This is how we came back to Fountain. We bought my childhood family home from my parents. We raised our son in the same house I grew up in and we still live in it.”
Looking back, Thurston stated that coming back to Fountain and Mason County was the best move she made because it ended up opening a door to an opportunity she had been waiting for for a long time.
“I was able to secure a teaching job at MCE, where I have taught for the last 27 years, making this my 34th year of teaching,” she said. “This year I am teaching middle school English, ninth- and eleventh-grade English and business law. In past years, I have taught high school reading, creative writing, American sign language and journalism.
“I have been a student council advisor, a SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving) advisor and this year, the National Honor Society advisor. I have held officer positions within our union and also helped negotiate teacher contracts.”
Thurston stated that with so many years of teaching under her belt, she has seen a lot of changes in the way students have to approach education.
“Obviously, education has changed drastically in the five decades I have been in the classroom,” she said. “While it doesn’t occupy my every thought, the increased school violence across our country does weigh heavily upon me.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be teaching children how to arm themselves and be proactive in their own safety. It breaks my heart to think this is where we are as a society. Although teachers spend every day in every classroom teaching responsibility, respect, courtesy and empathy, there are days when it feels like we are powerless against an ever-changing world. My students always know my room is a safe place to find refuge. That is the least I can offer them.”
Along with the changing dynamics of education, Thurston also stated that she, personally, has had to make changes in the way she approaches things in and out of the classroom.
“When you have taught as long as I have, there is an evolution that takes place within your classroom walls and within you as a person,” she said. “To say I have learned many lessons about myself would be an understatement. More than anything, I have learned to breathe and think before I speak. I have learned to listen more and speak less. I have learned everyone is going through something so choose your words carefully. I have learned to be more patient and everything has its time and place. What I cannot complete today, I will complete tomorrow. I’ve learned to give myself a break. I’ve learned to find hobbies that make me a well-rounded person and provide me with escape from the stresses of my occupation.”
As the world changes and evolves in different ways, so do the careers in education and Thurston encourages students to follow their dreams and if those dreams are to become a teacher, she has some words of wisdom to impart.
“The best advice I could give to students pursuing a career in teaching is to attend the Career and Technical Education teacher academy at West Shore Community College,” she said. “You will learn quickly if teaching is the career for you. While it is critical to figure out a career path, it is just as important to find out what you don’t want to do.
“I chose secondary education because I knew working with small children wasn’t my strength. I earned a master’s degree in K-12 reading from Western Michigan University in 1999. I was fascinated by the various reading strategies for younger grades, but was able to easily apply them to older students. Find your comfort zone and invest your time perfecting it.”
Having students return to MCE to tell Thurston she inspired them in some way is one of the great and unexpected perks about teaching. Thurston stated that she also had teachers who inspired her and made her love for learning that much more special.
“My favorite memories from MCE revolve around anytime I was in the presence of strong female teachers,” she said. “I truly believe my passion for English came from sitting in Mrs. Calkins’ middle school English classes, listening to her lessons on diagramming sentences and the importance of knowing the parts of speech.
“We had to memorize all the state capitals and recite them. We had to memorize the Gettysburg Address. I thought she walked on water. She was so smart and so articulate, I never questioned her directives. If she said do it, you did it, no questions asked. Furthermore, her command of the classroom was impressive. No one dared defy her. You didn’t want to disappoint her. Our birthdays were a day apart in June. We exchanged cards and letters well into my adulthood until she could no longer write. They are still mementos I treasure.”
Although the teaching career can come with ups and downs, Thurston stated that seeing her students every day, whether previous or current, is what keeps her loving her career.
“One of the most rewarding experiences as a teacher still remains the lifetime connection you make with your students,” she said. “There is nothing more special than when one sends you a note to say thank you for what you did for me. Or ‘I am so glad I took your business law class. I use that information all the time.’ Or just ‘thank you for caring about me when I didn’t care about myself.’ ‘Thank you for not giving up on me.’ ‘ I’m sorry I wasn’t good to you.’ Most of those revelations come years after students graduate. Years later I still get, ‘You were my favorite teacher,’ and it makes it worth the wait.”