Kirsten is pictured in her office with a Masai shield

Kirsten is pictured in her office with a Masai shield

by Deb Seminary

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet, because you have no idea what journey they are on and what troubles they face,'”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler is a Class B girl and proud of it. Growing up in Flasher, North Dakota, the youngest of seven children, she knew it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ she and her siblings gave back to their community, state or country, it was ‘how could they best serve.’ “My mother and father were, in my opinion, the perfect parents,” she said. “They were servant leaders before the term was coined. Both of them were very involved in their community, so I learned by example. I knew that had to be part of the purpose in my life.”

Baesler originally wanted to go to college to become a lawyer, but her life changed direction early in her adult life when she became a young wife and mother. It soon became apparent that the well-being and care of children were her passion. “My own children were, and remain, my motivation and inspiration for what I do,” she explained. “As a young mother I wanted my children to have someone they could trust, rely and depend on to have their best interests in mind. As I grew in my desire to be that kind of mom, I realized every child deserved to have somebody like that, someone who would support them and provide resources for them so they could be successful.”

She was conflicted in those early years, trying to balance career and family. Then Baesler read a book that talked about having things in your life that complemented each other. If they complemented each other, they wouldn’t conflict so much and that’s when she recognized her purpose was to dedicate her life to the education of children.

She went back to school to get her elementary education degree, and went back again to become a library media specialist. “Then I went back to school and got my Master’s Degree in Education,” said Baesler. “I have served as a teacher, library media specialist and assistant principal. During that entire time I was always involved in my community, whether it was the PTO, Boy Scouts, church youth group leader, or the Mandan School Board. All of those things complemented each other. Being a parent made me a better teacher, and being a teacher made me a better vice principal, being a school board member made me a better vice principal, teacher, parent and all of those made me a better mom. It was all interconnected.”

While she was on the school board, she realized how important it was to create good policy that impacts what happens in the classrooms and schools. “I spent that time learning and growing and really preparing myself, I think, for this job,” she said. “I take this job very seriously. My children were my motivation for the beginning of my journey and remain my inspiration, but ALL children deserve to have that advocate for them. The children are my constituents, they are the people I serve. But they can’t vote or organize to hire a lobbyist. I am their voice. The K-12 students of North Dakota need me to represent and support them.”

Educational Philosophy
Baesler shared a story which helps to explain her educational philosophy: “The Masai Tribe is centuries old. They are the most famous, fiercest tribe in all of Africa. Their traditional greeting translates to, ‘And how are the children?’ Every person in the village greets each other with these words. And the traditional response translates to, ‘All the children are well.’ That surprises a lot of people, given the warrior-like nature of the tribe. But the reason they greet each other that way, is that it is the central core of what they stand for. If all the children are well, the defenses are strong, there is enough food in storage and there is no sickness or death in the village.”

When she came to the Department of Public Instruction, she shared with her team that is the culture she wants to create. “Every decision needs to come down to, ‘And how are the children?’”

She also talked about an experience that taught her many things: “When I was in college I had a significant moment. I had the same teacher for two different classes, Written Communications and Public Speaking. She noted how I struggled with writing while it was easy for me to articulate what I wanted to say. She suggested I pretend like I am talking to the paper. I am still not a terribly strong writer, but can now communicate in writing if I need to. It is because of her that I am able to do that. I also understand that it takes a different approach for each child. Don’t determine a child’s ability based on a snapshot.”

Not judging based on a snapshot also helped her during her first legislative session. There is so much sharing of information, different perspectives and pieces of knowledge to deal with. “We make the best decisions we can at the moment we need to make them with the information we have available,” said Baesler. “It is important to seek out as much information as possible.”
The timing of the election prevented her from presenting a number of ideas; now her office keeps a running list of proposals for the next session. Baesler explained it is a time in education where we need to be innovative. “The world is requiring innovation and our K-12 system needs to be innovative as well. The ultimate goal of K-12 education is to prepare students for careers and college, and to be adults. We need to have more of our students graduating. We have an 88% graduation rate in North Dakota and we need to do better than that. We need to ensure they will be successful whether they choose a career right out of high school, or whether they choose to go to a two-year college or four-year university. That is going to require better collaboration and more communication between our K-12 and higher ed systems. I have already begun implementing action steps toward that goal. I think the opportunities for K-12 and higher ed to work together more closely are plentiful. I am very optimistic about that.”

One of the ways to measure if students are prepared is through testing and state assessments. Some people don’t think the state assessments are necessary, especially since the results come in at the end of the year. But Baesler explained testing has historically been done that way, students take their Physics finals at the end of the year and they are out the door. “Hopefully the instructors are looking at those tests over the course of three or four years and noticing if there were things the students just weren’t getting, that needed more work,” she said. “Hopefully we are using those state assessment results to look at trends, to say ‘we need a stronger unit in Geometry,’ for example. We have a state data system that has the capability to measure and provide feedback on how those kids are doing in higher ed. The next step is to add that to the work force. Business and industry leaders provide valuable feedback, telling us if students are ready for the work force, which helps us determine what skills they need to be career and college ready. Things have changed, now the expectation is that (almost) every student goes on to college, because of the employability factor.”

Three graduations in May, Lee from UNC Greeley and the twins from MHS.

Three graduations in May, Lee from UNC Greeley and the twins from MHS.

Family Life
Baesler has three boys and all are extremely different. “I cannot believe they grew up eating around the same table,” she said. “Lee is very philosophical and analytical, your typical Liberal Arts major. Mitchell rodeoed in high school and took many of the CTE courses – construction and welding. Chancellor was the traditional student, advanced sciences and math, three sports – a teacher’s best type of student. They are very supportive of each other and very close, probably because they are so different. I felt lucky as a teacher since I had my own ‘field test’ at home. I had two children of the same gender, born eleven minutes apart, growing up in the same environment, learning in two completely different ways. The way I taught Chance to tie his shoes was very different from the way I taught Mitch. They are the best part of me and they have given me more than I have given them.”

Since Baesler was in education, her schedule was conducive to spending a lot of time with her boys while they were growing up. “They will tell you that while most families took summer vacations, their mom made them take learning trips,” she explained. “After fourth grade, which focused on North Dakota studies, we got the ‘North Dakota Day Trip’ books and took some day trips around the state. The year the twins finished fifth grade and Lee finished eleventh (all studied US history that year), we took a thirteen colony tour and saw all of things they learned about. Those experiences were a complement to everything else I was doing and I brought the idea of learning outside of the textbook to the school board.”

Women in Politics
Not surprisingly, Baesler feels it’s important for women to be involved in the political arena. She believes that all issues are ‘women’s issues’ and gave examples: “I have always been the one sitting down at the table and paying the monthly bills, so interest rates and our economic policy have always been important to me; our energy and foreign policies are very vital to me, especially with three boys and their friends that may choose military service; Ag policy affects women as they head to the grocery store, make food budgets and purchasing decisions. And higher ed – what will our student loan interest rates be? These are all women’s issues and it is critical we become part of the conversation and part of the influencers of what that policy becomes. I borrow this from another educator turned public official – when I see a young girl now, I ask, ‘when are you going to run for office?’ I want to plant that seed. I encourage women to find their passion and then become involved, whether it be in an elected office, a community organization or non-profit.”

Although she has a lot less of it now, Baesler tries to exercise in her spare time. She spends time with family and her fiancee, who is, of course, a teacher.