Lessons from Our Lowest-Paid Teacher of Love and Learning

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is a little schoolhouse on the prairie, a white clapboard building with sun streaming through snow-fogged windows to illuminate a scene from another time. Beneath a portrait of Abe Lincoln, a stern but loving schoolmarm teaches her five students, ranging from a kindergartner to a sixth-grader. The tiny Salund School seems as obscure as the town it serves, McLeod, N.Dak. (population 50, give or take a few), but it contains one notable personage: Janice Herbranson, 49, who presides over the school for a salary of $6,300 a year. That, according to the National Education Association, makes her the lowest-paid public school teacher in America. A gleeful, gritty frontier matriarch, Herbranson not only teaches her students the three R's but also cooks them breakfast and lunch—and actually turned down a raise. "I didn't even know what my salary was. I had to look it up," she says with a laugh. "But that's all the money we have here in little McLeod."

Muffins, turkey and the three R's
Rising at dawn, Herbranson climbs into her black snowmobiling jumpsuit ("the warmest thing I own") and walks the snow-covered quarter-mile from her home to her classroom carrying the government-surplus turkey that will serve as the day's school lunch. She then bakes blueberry muffins, which are just about ready when her students begin arriving about 8:30. For the rest of the day she performs a dizzying succession of classroom activities, ranging from teaching ABCs to kindergartner Jodi Sagvold, 6, to helping sixth-grader Kent Gruba, 12, with his science. It isn't necessarily the most efficient teaching method, but for the people of McLeod, it makes up in intangibles what it lacks in academics. "The one thing that can't be measured is the love that Janice gives to these kids—and the love they give her," says school superintendent Sheryl Dagman. "They get all their basics. You can bet on it."

A frosty recess and a daily prayer of thanks
Although Herbranson gets occasional assistance from a visiting school nurse, a speech therapist and a learning-disabilities specialist, she has to wash the dirty dishes and the classroom floor herself. She also performs a task that the United States Supreme Court frowns upon—leading mealtime prayers. "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest," the children recite with bowed heads. "Let this food to us be blest. Amen." Herbranson is aware of the high court's 1962 school prayer decision, but with a characteristic wink and a smile, she discloses her own self-legislated loophole. "I know that we aren't supposed to do this," she says in a whisper. "I've told the children that we couldn't if we weren't all Lutherans up here."

The world awaits, the school shrinks
Herself the product of a one-room school (and a stint at the state university in Fargo), Herbranson is proud that three-quarters of her graduates end up on the honor rolls of local junior and senior high schools. "We've got cheerleaders and class presidents among our graduates. Even in a little school you can build up kids so they feel good about themselves." Despite all that, the school may soon become a colorful memory. In two years there will be only two students. "One new mother called me to ask, 'Will you still be there when my baby starts school?' " Janice says. "I just said, 'I hope so.' "

When school's out, the bar is open
Getting by on $6,300 a year isn't easy, even in McLeod. Fortunately, Herbranson has a moonlight job: She is co-owner of the Sand Dune Saloon, the only watering hole in town. She bought the beer-only bar in 1974, during a bleak period in her life. She had lost her husband, rancher Stanley Herbranson, to a plane crash in 1971, and three years later her 14-year-old son, Dean (she has three other boys), died in a fire in the family farmhouse. The tragedies led her to the bottle. "I fell apart and didn't teach for four years," she admits. "When I hit bottom, I went to AA. And I haven't had a drink since April 6, 1980." Herbranson enjoys her saloon more now that she doesn't drink. She spends her nights there grading papers and cracking open beers for the grain farmers and cowboys, many of whom she taught years ago. She also feeds them homemade soup and keeps them out of trouble. "Their mamas don't worry about them if they know they're doing their partying in McLeod," she says. "When I want to close up, I just give 'em that look"—she approximates a stern schoolteacher's scowl—"and I don't have much trouble." And then she dissolves in laughter.

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