By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Kathy Hegna knows it’s time for retirement, but her special education students at Delano Public Schools aren’t quite ready to see her go.
“As I get ready to leave, I tell the kids I’m ‘spring house cleaning’ otherwise it makes them sad,” Hegna said.
Listening to Hegna, it’s clear that the attachment is mutual.
“I’m really going to miss the kids,” she said. “They just say the right thing. There’s not a day that goes by that they don’t make me laugh.”
Hegna has spent nearly her entire career 32 years as a special education teacher at Delano Public Schools. She originally planned to teach in a traditional setting, but is glad she changed her mind.
“People talk about seeing life through a child’s eyes, and I think that’s even more pronounced in special needs,” she said.
In the 1970s, Hegna had been studying elementary education at Concordia College in Moorhead when an advisor suggested she switch to special education.
She took that advice, and transferred to Mankato State University, which offered the degree.
After graduation, Hegna set aside one of her other ambitions theatre.
“I thought I’d teach a couple years, then go on to Hollywood,” she said. “But, once I started teaching, that was it.”
Theatre knowledge did come in handy, however. During her first two years of teaching (at Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools), Hegna also served as fifth- and sixth-grade drama director.
Then, in 1980, she accepted a position in Delano, because she wanted to be close to the Twin Cities.
“There were so many special ed openings,” she said. “I think I had six job offers.”
In the past three decades, special education has changed significantly, according to Hegna.
“There’s a lot more paperwork,” she said. “They each have an individual education plan, and we have to keep records of everything. There’s not enough emphasis on the student anymore.”
Some of the changes have been positive, however.
“We have much nicer rooms now, and I don’t think special ed has quite the mark that it used to,” Hegna said.
Hegna primarily works with fifth- and sixth-graders, in groups of three to 11 at a time.
“They come in and out during the day for things like reading, math, and spelling,” she said. “We try to do the same work, but it might be at a slower pace.”
If the class is reading a novel, for example, they’ll read it out loud together, instead of assigning it for homework. The students also review practical tasks, such as telling time, counting money, and using a time card.
Hegna finds that her students give new meaning to simple activities like dying Easter eggs or discussing popular songs.
“We could all learn from them,” she said. “They keep you young.”
Hegna said she’s blessed to have been part of a great staff and student body in Delano, but knows that it’s her time to move on.
“I do think there’s a point when we have to step aside,” she said. “I know I’ve made a difference.”