Last hugs

First-grade teacher Christina Bretl is retiring from the career in which she gets ‘hugged more than any other human being on earth’
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Christina Bretl never planned to go home again, but she blew the concept made famous by novelist Thomas Wolfe to pieces.

“I live in my childhood house,” Bretl a Port Washington native who is nearing retirement as a first-grade teacher, said.

Her office has been the same for the last 19 years. It’s not at Dunwiddie Elementary School, where she attended, but it’s in the same district at Saukville Elementary.

“This very classroom,” she said. “I’ve never left these two and a half walls.”

One reason she stayed is the camaraderie of her fellow teachers. Bretl is a member of a tight-knit group full of banter and laughter.

“This job is too hard to do on your own,” Bretl said.

“We’re friends and then it just morphed into now it’s family,” fourth-grade teacher Nicole Burmesch said.

The teachers are so close that Bretl requested they all partake in an interview for this profile.
The group — Brelt, Burmesch, first- grade teachers Lora Grech and Amanda Schmalz, second-grade teacher Angie Krausse and physical education teacher Colette Piontek — gets together often for cookouts or game nights, and members have even been in each other’s weddings.

“She’s like the glue of the group,” Schmalz said of Bretl.

“More like the crazy aunt,” Grech said.

Grech is informally in charge of “logistics and safety.”

“We all return in one piece because of me,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused an adjustment to their daily interactions.

“We can’t intermix classrooms. That’s why we have coffee in the morning,” Burmesch said.

Regardless of personality or circumstance, the group has one constant.

“Everybody here is super positive. We don’t get hooked up into that world of negativity,” Bretl said.

If necessary, she said, “We’ll go to someone’s house and beat out the negative stuff and come back refreshed.”

Bretl never sought out these kinds of relatives, but it was a different kind of family that brought her back to Port. Her husband Scott, who is friends with her brother — that’s how the couple met — is from Port and wanted to stay.

The two are seven years apart.

“I was at Dunwiddie when he was at Port High,” Bretl said.

Bretl had worked as a bartender and a waitress and was managing a restaurant when she got married. She quit her job to go to school full time at 30 years old.

“And it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Bretl said.

That came years after her first try at college when she planned to become a nurse.

The second time, Bretl earned an elementary education degree from Cardinal Stritch University and later got a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.

She taught four years in Mequon before coming to Saukville.

She was hoping to teach fifth or sixth grade but was asked to give first grade a try after teaching summer school in Port.

“No way, Jose,” was Bretl’s initial response.

She was encouraged to give it a shot and changed her mind.

“They were just little,” she said of her students. “And then you realize they’re little learners.”

She loves witnessing first-graders’ brains developing right in front of her.

“It’s an amazing thing to watch,” she said.

The job comes with physical benefits as well.

“I get hugged more than any other human being on the face of the earth,” Bretl said.

While teaching has changed — Bretl describes the paperwork as “insane” but “it doesn’t take away from the joy of this job” — children have stayed the same.

“They want to talk to each other. They want to read to each other,” Bretl said.

They’re into first-grader activities such as soccer, T-ball and flag football, and “they love it when you pull up to watch one of their games. They just beam,” Bretl said.

“They know you care,” Schmalz said.

Bretl attends graduations and said she has been to more than 150 graduation parties, along with weddings and funerals of former students.

Education may have been an unnatural field for Bretl, who said she wasn’t a great student. But she kept at it and graduated magna cum laude from Cardinal Stritch.

“If I could teach my kids anything, it’s about tenacity,” she said.

Teaching wasn’t in her family, but when her mother left the workforce to raise her children, she took on many teaching roles through Boy Scouts, 4-H and swimming lessons.

Bretl’s father earned a business degree and became a journeyman with J&H Heating in Port.

Bretl said the timing is right for her to step away from school now.

“The life goal of where we wanted to be came to fruition faster,” Bretl said of her and her husband.

“And let’s face it, nobody wants a 100-year-old first-grade teacher.”

Bretl will be far from bored. The couple runs several businesses, including Just Drive, a driver’s education school.

Port High had offered driver’s education but the state stopped funding the program, prompting Scott, who has a master’s degree in education, to start the business with his wife in 2005. He spoke in front of the

Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Instruction and helped convince them to allow the learner’s permit test to be given in class and not by the DOT.

The Bretls were able to franchise Just Drive and the state now has 36 locations.

It has made for a busy schedule in which their dinners aren’t far from first-graders’ lunches.

“We go home — mac and cheese, PB&J — and go to Just Drive,” Bretl said.

Bretl’s position with the company stops at students’ desks.

“I taught lots of classes but I would never get in the car,” she said.

Bretl just opened a personal training business, and the couple own North Shore Investigations, contracting with people to look into welfare fraud.

Bretl also volunteers with Be3 in Port, a workout philanthropy group, and will be piloting a trishaw through the Cycling Without Age group that takes senior citizens for rides.

The couple is also building a condo, hopes to travel and will spend time at their home in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

Her latest hobby is CrossFit and she has made new friends through the popular workout.

Busy as she will be, she knows the last day of school won’t be easy.

“It will not be a pretty cry when I walk away,” Bretl said.

“I still love it. I will horribly miss it.”

But, Bretl said, she is comfortable with her decision.

“I’m one of those lucky people who get to say I love the life I’ve chosen.”

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