Family atmosphere creates lifelong teaching career
By Robert Williams
Elementary school third grade teacher Tanya Mahoney is somewhat of a throwback having known what she wanted to do from a young age, graduating high school and college to land in the only school she has ever worked in a career that spans three decades.
“That’s not very common anymore,” Mahoney said. “I definitely am a creature of comfort and I like the relationship part of it.”
In her 31st year, those relationships she has built earned her Teacher of the Year, something that was not the easiest to accept.
“It’s an honor, but I was terrified to have to walk out there in front of 500 people,” she said. “It kind of brought me back to my college speech class. I was very nervous about giving speeches. I had a fellow classmate one day, say, ‘Why is it? If you’re going to be a teacher, why are you so nervous about speeches?’ Getting up in front of a classroom full of children is a lot different than getting up in front of judgmental adults.
“My kids were more excited.”
One of Mahoney’s students said, “I’m just so excited. It’s like we all won an award!”
“I think a lot of it had to do, and I’ve been told by a lot of people in the hallway the past couple weeks, you’ve found your place in third grade,” Mahoney said.
Making that transition from a career in kindergarten was not easy at first.
“I like to get good at what I’m doing,” she said. “That was one thing coming to third grade; I don’t have anything for third grade. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on stuff for kindergarten. My gosh, just moving out of that room with 28 years in my cupboards and I can’t use any of this. The first year I worked a lot because I can’t settle for it being halfway; that’s why I like being in the same job because I can just get better and better at it.”
Mahoney graduated from Battle Lake High School in 1988 and Moorhead State University in 1992. She had been on a trajectory for a teaching position since she was in kindergarten.
“Since I was five,” she said.
There was a family connection also. Mahoney’s father, Brian Griffin, was a seventh grade English teacher before moving into the insurance field.
“I would play school with my stuffed animals until my sister was old enough to torture her,” Mahoney laughed. “Then, when I was a little bit older, my dad would let me correct his 100-word spelling tests from his seventh grade class. I got to correct papers. I loved all that.”
Griffin played a big role in how Mahoney got to Frazee after graduating college.
“My dad sold insurance to teachers and this area was his territory, so he was in all the schools in the area,” Mahoney said. “When it came time to do student teaching, my Dad said, “Frazee, hands down.”
Brian described the school with the phrase, “it’s like a family here.”
“I watch my siblings and they’ve had multiple jobs too and they usually leave because of supervisors and people that were hard to work for; I trusted what my dad said and it’s very much like a family,” said Mahoney. “Even subs that will come into the building, ever since I’ve been here, they prefer to sub in Frazee rather than anywhere else because everyone is so welcoming and kind. They just treat you like an extended member of the family.”
Mahoney began student teaching in 1992 and accepted a half-time kindergarten position the following year. She taught kindergarten for 28 years mentoring under Mary Jane Beyer, Julie Wirth, Karen Krause and Nancy Ferguson.
“I learned a lot from the older teachers here and now I learn a lot from the younger ones, in terms of technology,” she said.
Three years ago, a kindergarten section was cut from the elementary due to declining numbers and Mahoney moved to a third grade classroom.
“It’s one of those things, like I tell my kids at home or I tell the kids here, if your boss or the person in charge of you says you’re going to do this, you say OK,” she said.
Despite that reconciliation, Mahoney was not overly happy about the change.
“Not really, but I was more terrified, I think,” she said. “I had an early childhood degree and that was really the age level I always wanted to be with, I was envisioning what is it like in third grade? What are third graders like now?”
Turns out, there was not that big of a difference and what made the transition easier was having already taught the three years of students coming her way in third grade.
“This year, this is the last group of kindergarteners I had,” Mahoney said.
Somewhat surprisingly, the three years in third grade have grown on Mahoney after discovering new levels of interaction with her students.
“They are so much more independent,” she said. “If someone were to ask me now do you want to go back to kindergarten? No, once you move up and you stop tying shoes and changing pants, things like that. This is nicer and you can have a conversation with the older kids and they get it. You can tell a joke or have a little sarcasm and they get it. That’s kind of been neat, just seeing the independence and how much they’ve learned and grown.”
The elementary school also has a bit of a mystery charm that has kept Mahoney working there for three decades.
“It is different from high school – that’s something that even back in the day when my dad said, ‘you need to go to Frazee,’ he had lots of clients and friends in both buildings. The elementary atmosphere is just a little bit more… I don’t know how to describe it,” she said.
After pondering, it’s about the mood. Something that Mahoney gets right to each class day.
“That’s one thing we do in our room every morning; we have a song called, ‘Choose Your Mood,’” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve found with third grade; we can choose how our day is going to be.”
Starting the day in a positive manner is not mandatory but participation is.
“I make them sing,” said Mahoney. “In the beginning, some of them just sat there, but now, we’ve been in school for a week or so, if you don’t sing, now you don’t get your punch.”
Mahoney has a punch card for each student.
“You’re choosing to have a bad mood right away, that’s not fair to everyone and they all sing now,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney also employs plenty of democracy and allows her students to have input on how their learning day goes.
“Sometimes it goes by what do they want to do?” she said. “Their favorite thing for me to do is take a pile of papers that we were going to do and throw them into the garbage can. I like to be in charge, but I also like to be flexible.”
The Mahoneys, as a family, had to learn flexibility.
Mahoney and her husband Michael have four very recognizable daughters to local softball fans. All four girls are graduates of Frazee-Vergas High School and all four went on to pursue postsecondary degrees at the University of Minnesota-Morris and play softball there. The Mahoney family name has a tradition in Morris.
“I wasn’t an athlete; I was in pageants and I worked through high school,” said Mahoney.
Autumn, the eldest daughter, started the athletic tradition playing basketball when she was young and moving to softball.
Grandpa Brian had a lot to do with it too.
“He grew up playing baseball, so he was playing catch all the time and teaching him how to bat,” Mahoney said.
Autumn, 27, is currently in the Space Force, stationed in Colorado. Carly, 23, is attending grad school at the University of Iowa studying Biostatistics. Brenna, 22, is getting her doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Malena, 20, graduated high school in 2022 and is currently majoring in Computer Science in Morris and finishing up the family tradition of playing softball.
“We’ve been going to games at Morris for how many years and the coaches, they’re all like family now because we’ve been there so long,” said Mahoney.
Some of the girls crossed paths at college. Carly and Brenna played together and Brenna and Maleana played together and now it’s just Malena on the Cougars roster.
“Some of the girls ask her, are you the last Mahoney?,” said Mahoney. “Even the professors there call her the legacy. They loved playing together at college.”
Mahoney is a structured person and her family had its own structure for success.
“We had goals,” she said. “Autumn kind of set that standard too for academics.They all graduated No. 1 in their class academically. It was like Autumn had a 4.0 and graduated valedictorian, then Carly had a 4.0 and graduated valedictorian, and so on.”
This family narrative runs deep for this year’s elementary school Teacher of the Year and it all boils down to one of the favorite things that happens to most teachers, which Mahoney tempers with some wisdom from her dad.
“When they learn something new, that’s my favorite part,” she said. “This is something that my dad always said to us kids, so now I say it to these kids, “You’re never as good as you can be; that is right.”