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Sweet Briar schoolteacher and principal Sheri Johnson shows her students a beef lung before inflating the organ during a dissection May 2 at the rural school about 12 miles west of Mandan. Johnson is retiring this month after 38 years in education, including the past 24 years at Almont and Sweet Briar schools. (Jack Dura / Bismarck Tribune)

Schoolteacher retiring after long career in rural North Dakota schools

SWEET BRIAR, N.D — Wearing garbage bag ponchos and blue rubber gloves, students of Sweet Briar School gathered around Sheri Johnson as she began to inflate a beef lung.

"Isn't that just the coolest thing, you guys?" she said after blowing air into the organ.

The lung was the last of the morning's dissecting lesson, which used a heart, diaphragm, trachea and other organs donated from the butcher shop in Glen Ullin.

"We thought we had an eyeball ordered, too, but that didn't come," Johnson said, keeping a close watch on her students using scalpels from a local veterinarian.

The lesson will be one of her last at Sweet Briar School, a rural school about 12 miles west of Mandan on the rolling prairie. Johnson is retiring after 38 years of a diverse career in education.

Her wide interests led her to the teaching profession from high school, she said.

"From forestry to oceanography to being an astronaut to anthropology, child psychology; I just was interested in all those things," Johnson said. "Art, music and all that."

Her long career has taken her from teaching in western Minnesota to two years' missionary work in Papua New Guinea to a variety of roles in rural North Dakota schools. She's continued her education along the way, earning her master's degree in health science and other credentials over the years.

Johnson has been at Sweet Briar for 11 years as the principal and one of two teachers, and 13 years before that at Almont Public School in several roles: elementary principal, leading K-8 music and teaching health, science and math.

"This is many chapters of my life, but this is a new chapter coming," the International Falls, Minn., native said.

Johnson looks forward to spending time with her husband, Grant, and their children, 28-year-old Andrew and 15-year-old Claire.

There also are household projects to do on their Almont-area farm and ranch and activities to keep up with in town and at church.

And some substitute teaching here and there, of course.

"I can still keep my feet in education," Johnson said.

Sweet Briar's K-3 teacher, Katie Dahly, said she leaned on Johnson in her first years of teaching at the small school, from working with students in several grades to getting to know the local families.

"She's just a good leader," Dahly said. "Coming into teaching is a brand new world. Coming into a scenario like this when I've never heard of a school like this. I didn't grow up in a multi-grade, small, rural school."

She and Johnson both credit a "strong, motivating, supportive" school board helping to bolster the rural school and allow the teachers to continue their education. Dahly holds a master's degree in differentiated education.

Sweet Briar has seen growing enrollment in recent years — a record 22 students this year. Sweet Briar School Board President Travis Wolf said enrollment will likely plateau for the near future.

Johnson has been "a great teacher" for Sweet Briar, he said.

"She’s been a major asset," Wolf said. "We’re sure going to miss her, but wish her the best of luck in her retirement."

There's still work to do this school year, finishing reading and math, but some fun left as well.

Sweet Briar's students will take a field trip to Medora and put on a spring concert for their last day of school, May 23.

"It's all about the people, especially the students," Johnson said. "And I will be so thankful if I have influenced kids in a positive way. That's kind of the bottom line."