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24 years of dedication: Karen Zepper named Perham's Teacher of the Year

The Perham Education Association recently recognized special education teacher Karen Zepper, who started teaching in Perham 24 years ago, as the District 549 Teacher of the Year for the 2021-2022 school year.

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Karen Zepper holds up her Teacher of the Year award. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)
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The pandemic knocked many educators off their usual patterns, but it didn't stop Perham special education teacher Karen Zepper from making a difference for her students.

Zepper was recently rewarded for her work by being named the 2021-2022 District 549 Teacher of the Year. The Perham Education Association announced the recognition. Zepper has been teaching in Perham for the past 24 years.

Winners of the Teacher of the Year award are nominated and voted for by their fellow teachers.

"It's really a way to recognize one of their own," Superintendent Mitch Anderson said of the award. "(Zepper) is an excellent choice this year. She's done a phenomenal job."

Zepper said winning the honor was a strange experience because she wasn't expecting it. She doesn't teach to be in the public eye, she said, but is grateful for the recognition.

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"(Winning Teacher of the Year is) pretty cool — not at all expected — but neat because it’s from peers," she said. " I do what I do because I love what I do. I mean, I do it for the kids. The kids are always the primary force of my day."

Teaching is Zepper's passion because of the connections she makes with kids. She has kids coming in and out of her classroom all day long, she said. As a special education teacher, her primary focus is on helping students with learning disabilities. She helps kids in grades 9–12 build skills they'll need after high school, from doing fractions to hunting for a job.

According to Anderson, no single day is the same for Zepper, as student needs often change. And as a special education teacher, she has extra paperwork to complete. She comes in early, stays late, and works weekends, Anderson said. She also helps with summer school and Empowering Kids.

"If (special education teachers) get a lunch break, they're pretty lucky," Anderson said. "(Zepper has) meetings to discuss individualized education plans for each of her students. She wants what’s best for the kids, and provides those services."

Zepper said she values personal, one-on-one connections with students. During COVID-19 virtual learning, she took extra hours out of her day to meet with her kids over Zoom when they needed that personal interaction.

"The first thing I try to do is make those connections with kids," Zepper said. "Because once they know somebody is invested in their education, it’s a lot easier to connect with them. Some kids just feel like nobody cares… (With special education) you learn a lot more empathy and understanding, and you connect with the kids a lot more."

Since she teaches all grade levels at the high school, she gets to watch her students grow and become more independent between their freshman and senior years, which is her goal for them.

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"( Zepper) is a true advocate for not just the students she’s working with, but also their family," Anderson said.

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Karen Zepper has been teaching in Perham for 24 years. (Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus)

A Perham High School graduate herself, Zepper takes a lot of pride in her school district. All three of her daughters graduated from Perham schools. Because of the district's size, the schools are able to offer more, Zepper said. The schools also get a lot of community support.

After winning Teacher of the Year, Zepper herself got a lot of community support, including a gift basket from a Perham business and multiple texts from students.

"Perham’s a good school district," she said. "I appreciate having the opportunity to work here. There’s a lot of great community support, along with family support. The personalization is amazing."

"(Zepper) really has a heart of gold," Anderson said. "Even though she's a veteran teacher, she's not afraid to learn and grow. She's not afraid to speak up for what's right for her students, kids and colleagues."

Zepper said the time she spends with students makes her love her job. She's really enjoyed the past 24 years.

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"Kids really have to open their hearts to let you in," she said. "They don’t have to choose to connect with you, but when they do, that’s pretty cool."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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