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Inver Grove Heights teacher overcame tragedy to find her life’s passion
Kim Westra almost didn’t become a teacher.
When her father committed suicide a few years after his teenage son was murdered, Westra had just started graduate school.
She says she remembers going outside in the snow, barefoot and screaming, when she first heard the news. She made it to Wisconsin to offer support to her stepmother and half-siblings, but when she returned home, grief enveloped her.
“I hid in a closet for a few days,” she says. “I was done. I wasn’t going to come out.”
She says her heart felt physically broken.
She had watched her dad suffer with depression for three years, and had many conversations with him, trying to help him cope with the loss of his son Erik Kraemer, Westra’s half-brother. Kraemer, 17, was shot while out jogging in 1999; the only suspect committed suicide before he could be questioned.
Westra discovered later that her father had reached out for many lifelines, including medication and therapy, but she still questions whether she did enough.
“I’ve had so much guilt, even to this day, that I didn’t say the right thing,” Westra says. “Why would my dad leave all of us? Why would he leave his grandchildren?”
Immobilized by grief
With the support of her family, she was able to get through the death of her brother; her father’s death completely immobilized her. As she struggled to find the energy and focus for daily tasks, returning to the rigors of grad school seemed impossible.
Her husband urged her to continue chasing the dream she had put on hold since high school, telling her she had to keep going.
He convinced her, though she also had to convince herself.
“I had to really decide ‘I’m really going to do this,’” she says.
Pursuing her master’s degree in education at St. Catherine University helped her to set and meet goals, first hourly and daily, and then longer-term. Step by step, she was continuing with her life.
Westra says that struggle was pivotal in her becoming a teacher at the Atheneum Gifted Magnet Program at Salem Hills Elementary School in Inver Grove Heights, and in recently elevating her to be one of ten finalists for the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.
But it’s a time she has only shared with family and close friends — until recently.
Only telling her story now
There was no mention of what she calls a “dark time” in the essay she wrote to the selection panel that plucked her out of 33 semifinalists, a group narrowed down from 128 candidates.
But she knew her struggle could produce a compelling lesson for her students — and anyone else with whom she shared it. She grappled with publicly opening up about the biggest obstacle she cleared to follow her love for teaching.
“I don’t tell that story,” she says. “But I’ve always thought that somehow I need to ... People need to figure out how to get through adversity.”
She plans to explain it to the selection panel in another round of interviews in May.
Sitting in her classroom after school on a recent Wednesday, Westra, 45, reflected on how rather than stop her, the experience helped to hone her “absolute” commitment to teaching.
Looking shaky, but determined, she wiped away tears.
“I’ve overcome hurdles, and that’s got to be the message I pass on to my students. People need to know that no matter what happens in their life, they can overcome and persevere.”
Exposed to education early
Westra was just a toddler when she first witnessed the importance of education.
She was born when her mother, Patricia, was 19. Determined to finish her degree, Patricia simply brought the 2-year-old along to class. As her mom took notes from lectures, Westra kept busy taking her own “notes,” drawing or playing make-believe, transforming rocks or stuffed animals into characters with names and storylines.
Later, she realized the incredible commitment it took for her mother to succeed. She had started out with no money, no car and no support system for herself and her baby in south Minneapolis. But, with a master’s degree, she became a nurse in epidemiology. She eventually earned a doctorate in adult education, and taught nursing at Minnesota State University Mankato.
“It was a way for her to make it,” Westra says. “She did it on her own.”
A grandmother’s legacy
Although her parents didn’t make it as a couple (they divorced and each eventually remarried), Westra says both influenced her career path.
Her grandmother, Ruth, was an immigrant who told stories about Russian soldiers stomping through her farm and occupying her home in East Prussia, as she ran into a wooded area, clutching her two young children. Left with nothing, she moved to the U.S., where she made the most of every opportunity and lived a long, happy life.
Westra’s grandmother taught her children and grandchildren that the most valued things in life are those things that can’t be taken away.
For Westra and her parents, education became one of those precious things.
When he was 9, Westra’s father was brought to the U.S. from Germany just after World War II. Besides being uprooted from a devastated country, it was tough for him to be a German kid among a still-impassioned post-war culture. He persevered to finish high school and was the first in his family to go to college.
Both parents passed on the lessons they’d learned about education.
“(They saw) it as a way to get out of their circumstances,” Westra says.
Her own hard lessons
Westra’s own education didn’t follow as straight a line, but it offers her some understanding of students she may work with now: those who have plenty of talent but for some reason aren’t applying it.
She recalls getting into fights in grade school, not being a great student and having teachers frustrated she wasn’t fulfilling the potential they saw in her.
“As I got older, I got more and more serious,” Westra says. “It was people believing in me, and really, I didn’t get serious academically and really see the potential academically in myself, until I was very much an adult.”
In high school, Westra talked about becoming a teacher, but others discouraged her from pursuing the profession.
“For decades, people told me it’s tough to get into,” she says.
Hoping to have better luck in another career, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went into marketing.
She got married and moved to Germany with her husband, Thor. There, she taught English and marketing at a vocational school.
Years away from high school and an ocean away from home, she was in a classroom, and she knew she belonged there.
Back to school
In 1996, she and her husband returned to the U.S.
Once her two children started school, she decided to attend graduate school in 2003, going to classes at night and over the weekends.
Her father ended his life after her first semester. With the support of her family and professors, she pressed on, writing papers and completing assignments while she raised two small children, as Thor traveled up to three weeks a month for his job in computer software consulting.
“It took every ounce of strength to continue,” Westra says now.
In 2006, she started teaching second- and third-graders at Salem Hills.
She committed herself to not just having a teaching job, but really being a teacher.
“I want to put my all into this,” she says. “It goes back to seeing the good in people. That’s what I want to do for my life’s work.”
A ‘Socratic’ approach
Westra now teaches 24 fourth- and fifth-graders in a gifted program.
She often lets her students choose how they want to prove their knowledge in assignments and decide which topics to debate and which books to read.
Rather than giving them answers, she prompts the kids to think critically, encouraging them to find the answers and then explain how they reached them.
“My style is to ask a lot of questions… giving hints and asking them to think through why something might be happening,” she says.
Often avid readers and good debaters, her students ask a lot of their own questions.
Sometimes, they’re “twice exceptional,” a name educators sometimes give those students who are highly intelligent and happen to be diagnosed with some sort of disorder, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome or autism.
That means she sometimes has to work harder to hook those students — who often make up a third or more of the class — and keep them engaged. That plays into the “Socratic” method she experienced in high school from her late high school philosophy teacher, Frank Ario.
“He let the kids talk about their philosophy. He saw the good in each child,” she says. “I think of him every day.”
She says she tries to emulate him and the other instructors who identified — and brought out — kids’ strengths.
Another influence for Westra was Robert Hanson, a teacher she had at the Laura Ingalls Wilder School in Minneapolis. He committed “tons of hours after school” to his students, she says.
Westra is known to commit her free time to her students, exposing them to science, engineering and computer programming.
Her first year of teaching, she spearheaded the Lego League in the district, starting with 23 second-graders who worked on one robot. They were too young to officially compete, but they still took home the “team spirit” award.
Now, league awards are strewn about her classroom, covering the tops of bookshelves and hanging on a wall.
While most teachers usually oversee one or two teams, Westra coaches 12.
Each team uses computers to program a robot made of Legos to complete an obstacle course. The students also build or conceive an invention to solve a problem they see in the world.
They conduct research during school, work on their robots after school, and compete almost every weekend in December and January.
She coached a fifth-grade math team in 2010, and became the regional director of the Math Masters of Minnesota.
She used to take part in the Reflections Art Program, getting kids doing art for nine years as a coach, and then six years on the state PTA board.
Committed to teaching
Those who have seen Westra’s efforts in and out of the classroom say she would be an excellent example to teachers nationwide.
Jodi Hassing, who helped nominate Westra, had a son and a daughter in Westra’s fourth-grade class.
“She exemplifies what we all want teachers to be like for our children,” she says. “She’s gone out of her way to create a unique classroom experience for these kids.”
Hassing says Westra made her daughter’s switch to the gifted program smooth, and appears to be greatly invested in each kids’ learning, customizing lessons for individual students and pushing them to explore their strengths and improve their weaknesses.
“She cares about all of her students,” Hassing says. When the kids performed their “wax museum” project, dressing up as historical figures and performing a biographical speech for parents and teachers at the end of the school year, Hassing got to see that committment first-hand.
“She’s there cheering them on as much as the parents are,” she says.
When Cheryl Moeller started as the executive director of High Tech Kids, overseeing Lego League competitions, she knew she would get to know Westra.
“What I didn’t know initially was that Kim attends almost every one of our FIRST Lego League tournaments,” Moeller wrote in her recommendation. “Kim not only teaches Monday through Friday, but coaches her (teams) on both Saturday and Sunday.
“She models how to learn and how to lead for our students and fellow educators,” Moeller wrote. “I can’t think of a better person to exemplify 21st Century learning for our students.”
Tina Willette, the associate principal at Salem Hills, says Westra would be the right choice to represent teachers statewide, and for the teaching profession as a whole.
“Mrs. Westra has an insatiable commitment to the development of programs and opportunities for students that will enrich and extend their academic experience,” Willette wrote. “The thought, time, and energy she puts forth to prepare her lessons and create units of study that will engage and challenge her students is superior.”
It was a roundabout route — and one she nearly didn’t take — but Westra’s certainty she’s in the right place makes her career choice seem inevitable.
“I feel great that I’m so absolute,” Westra says. “I don’t see myself ever retiring. I want to do this until I’m 99 years old.”
More evaluation ahead
Ten teachers from across the state were named finalists in the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year program. A selection panel of 25 leaders in the areas of education, business, government and non-profits selected the finalists from a group of 33 semifinalists. There were 128 Teacher of the Year candidates for the program year.
The selection panel meets again May 3 to conduct individual interviews with the 10 finalists and to cast votes for the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
The 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Megan Olivia Hall, of St. Paul, will announce this year’s honoree at a banquet at the DoubleTree by Hilton Bloomington-Minneapolis South May 4.
Education Minnesota, the 70,000-member statewide educators union, organizes and underwrites the Teacher of the Year program.
Westra at a glance
• Goes by “Kim,” although her name is Kathryn Kim Westra
• Licensed in K-6 elementary instruction and grades 5-8 math insruction
• Has taught grades 2-5 in a gifted magnet program
• 2009 Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Foundation Academic Coach of the Year
• Started teaching with Inver Grove Heights Community Schools in 2006
• Coaches 12 Lego League teams, a program she spearheaded in the district, exposing kids to robotics, computer programming and research
• Coached a fifth-grade math team, became the regional director of the Math Masters of Minnesota
• Coach with Reflections Art Program, served on the state PTA board
• Three-time finisher of the Twin Cities marathon