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Guitar teacher Mark Bernston demonstrates a chord to one of his classes. Photo by Beca Livermont

West Fargo and Sheyenne High School guitar teacher Mark Berntson will be inducted into the North Dakota Music Education Association Hall of Fame in April. Berntson will be commemorated in the Hall of Fame next to his father, Kenneth Berntson, who was a 2000 inductee.

"That's just really neat because my dad was my teacher in high school and I've always respected him so much and to be part of the same thing is really cool," Berntson said.

Berntson created the guitar program after teaching band for 20 years at several different schools.

While conducting research about high school dropout prevention with the North Dakota Education Association, Berntson came across information suggesting that teaching guitar could help reduce student dropouts.

"I kept thinking, 'Boy, I should be doing something different,' and I had heard that guitar was good for keeping kids in school," Berntson said. "I started talking to my bosses about that and started bugging them, and about three years later they let me try it."

While he was honored to receive recognition for his work, Berntson admitted that he was surprised to become an inductee so early in his career, as the honor is traditionally reserved for retired teachers.

"It was really unexpected," Berntson said. "People usually get it after they're done teaching, which isn't to say I'm remarkable or something. It's just not usually something you get when you're in your 40's, so that was a little unusual, but really cool."

Choir teacher Jeffery Mueller has worked closely with Berntson from early on in his career and was asked to write a letter of recommendation for Berntson to NDMEA.

Mueller said one of the main focusses of his letter was to emphasize the type of relationship Berntson strives to develop with each of his students.

"I mentioned things like when you are in his class, he knows you personally. He knows that you're involved in volleyball or basketball or whatever team or club you might be with, he probably has seen you at those things," Mueller said. "He's seen you at the swim meet, he's seen you at the wrestling meet, he knows that you're interested in cars, it's all those kinds of things."

One of Berntson's core teaching philosophies lies in forming bonds with his students and getting to know them.

"I make two promises to my students at the beginning of every semester: that I will teach you to play guitar, and number two I will always be happy to see you," Berntson said.

Berntson believes this allows for a more positive experience for every student, and helps decrease the likelihood of a student dropping out.

"I think so many of us don't have all that many people who are happy to see us, and that's sad, "Berntson said. "So I give my kids high-fives and I talk to them about their life and everything and that makes them happier to be here."

When Berntson first piloted the guitar program, he worked to ensure that he included at risk youth in his classes in order to achieve his goal.

"[Berntson] wanted to make sure that at least some of the students in his guitar class, he was going to try it out once, make sure that some of those students were the ones who might be at risk of dropping out," Mueller said. "Guitar class is usually in the morning so that helps get people to come to school, and there were a few students that came only because of guitar, that's the only reason they came to school."

Berntson says he believes several students choose to come to school primarily to attend guitar class.

"It's like 'Oh yeah, I can play guitar today, I should show up for school, or 'I shouldn't go home now even though I feel kind of sick because guitar class is coming up,' and it's not 'Oh, Mr. Berntson's so great', it's 'Oh, I get to play guitar, this is great,'" Berntson said.

Senior Vasundhra Agarwal has taken Guitar I and Guitar Ensemble with Berntson and believes that he lives up to of the recognition that he receives.

"In his classes, he doesn't just teach us how to play guitar," Agarwal said. "We learn so many other things like writing our own songs, understanding the theoretical aspects of music and the best techniques to play. He's a really good teacher."

Though Berntson is happy to receive recognition for going above and beyond, he feels he owes as much to his students.

"Maybe it isn't something you should get an award for, maybe it's just something we should all be doing, making kids happy to be there," Berntson said. "That's really been the biggest difference in my teaching style from when I was young until now, I've just spent more time trying to make kids feel like I am happy that they're there and that I hope that they're happy to be there too."

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