When Cathy Nault was a little girl she loved to play school and she has continued to “play school” for the past 40 years.
Nault has been an educator since 1971 — with the last 26 years as the Riverside Elementary School principal in Brainerd. Nault will retire and finish playing school at the end of next week, as she says her tough good-byes to all her beloved students and staff. Nault — who has seen many changes over the past four decades, good and bad — said it will be emotional to be away from Riverside, a school full of memories for her. She has been in contact with thousands of children day in an day out over the years at Riverside. Every day, Nault had children running up to her for a hug or others who would wave vigorously saying “Hi, Mrs. Nault.”
Students and staff surprised Nault Monday during the school’s monthly award presentation with a short skit and a musical that was taped earlier where each grade sang a song for Nault and had students say a few words about the principal. Students talked about how much they love Nault, how she helped them be less of a bully, how they thought she looked nice all the time and how she taught them good behavior skills.
Nault’s mother, husband and sister also attended the award presentation.
In an interview, Nault said what she’ll miss most about the school is being needed.
“That is going to be really hard for me,” said Nault. “I can never plan my day, you never know what would happen each day. What student or staff member would need help, or a parent. Knowing I made a difference in their life has meant a lot to me.”
Nault has seen numerous changes over the years, but one of the main changes is the drop in volunteerism. Nault said the economy has played a role in the number of parents who can take time out of their busy work schedule to come to the school to volunteer. Nault said the school values its volunteers.
“It’s not that the parents don’t care, it is just tough for them to volunteer during the day,” said Nault.
Another change, Nault said is that children at an early age don’t know how to rhyme as children did in the past.
“The rhyming language is not as apparent anymore,” said Nault. “It’s a dying art. I think TV replaced it. Rhyming is so good for children and it’s fun.”
Nault said schools today identify children with special education needs earlier than it has in the past.
Nault said the biggest challenge as Riverside’s principal for the past 26 years has been the size of the building. Nault said when she started at Riverside, the school was smaller than the former Whittier Elementary School. In 1986, there was one section for each grade at the school, with 190 students and 15 staff members. This school year there are five to six sections for each grade at the school, with 648 students and 100 staff members.
“With a larger school the more difficult it has been how to keep the small community feel,” said Nault. “I love my kids to come in here, but it is tougher when there are so many more students.”
Nault’s love for education — besides playing school as a child — began when she was in junior high. She and her best friend volunteered for three summers at a private school that helped children with developmental disabilities.
“I knew then in sixth grade that if I wanted to be the best teacher I would have to have a background in special education.”
Nault earned her kindergarten through sixth grade elementary license and special education license in 1970 from St. Cloud State University (SCSU) ; and then she continued her graduate work at SCSU where she earned her master’s in special education, a master’s in school administration and a specialist degree in school administration.
Nault said she knew in junior high she wanted to attend SCSU after an assignment her class had to do where 60 students sent letters to many different colleges and only SCSU responded.
“I knew then that I wanted to go there,” said Nault. “If that college had the time to spend to write sixth-graders back I knew that they cared and would be the school I would want to go to.”
Nault attended UCLA where she received training and a license to train administrators in clinical supervision.
She began her career as a third grade teacher at Steward Elementary in Minneapolis. She said she gained appreciation for diversity and poverty while at the school.
In 1971, she was hired as a kindergarten teacher in Brainerd. Then in the spring of 1972, Nault was among eight teachers who were selected to teach the severely disabled at the former Brainerd State Hospital. It was a new program as the Minnesota Legislature required school districts to provide free and appropriate education to all students. Nault said the program grew to include students in seven buildings and a total student population of 250.
“After one year, I was promoted to an administrator’s position as the assistant director of the PACE program. I was there from 1972-1983.” said Nault. “During this time, I also began the first special education program for children age birth to 3. This program was located in the basement of Lowell School, we had nine students. Today there are more than 100. It was at this time I also became the district’s kindergarten coordinator and helped develop Kinderfriend Day that began in 1986.”
Nault then became the special education coordinator for Brainerd High School and was the school district’s trainer, before becoming the principal at Riverside in 1986.
Nault succeeded Jim Peterson, who succeeded “Mrs. Hansen,” who was Nault’s elementary school principal in St. Louis Park.
“Back then the principal was able to recommend who they wanted to replace them,” said Nault. “So Hansen chose Peterson and Peterson chose me. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”
Nault credits former Brainerd Superintendent Bob Gross who gave her insight to change her career path to include administration.
Nault said coming into Riverside as a principal, she wanted to make sure that none of the students would be afraid of her.
“I remember growing up that no one wanted to come into the principal’s office,” said Nault. “I was afraid of the principal and we had two women. They never yelled or anything, but I think it was a fear of the unknown.
“I also was afraid of my kindergarten teacher. It was at that time that I was driven to be a teacher and to not have any child be afraid of a teacher or principal.
“When I was in kindergarten my teacher would make me and the five other students, whose parents worked, be on a separate table during our work time. We were treated different because our parents worked. Education has come so far since then.”
Nault said during her retirement, she plans visit the students at Riverside; volunteer at the Cuyuna Regional Care Center, where her daughter works, and in the district’s special education program. Nault also will be busy as a member of the Essentia Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center board.
“Retirement will allow me to spend more time with my family and friends and do some traveling,” said Nault. “When the yellow busses come out in the fall I will not be here. I will be taking a trip to the Mackinac Island, (Mich.) I don’t want to be here, it will be too hard.”