ISD 622 educator wins Teacher of the Year Award

Oakdale Elementary School teacher Kathy Lukin is recipient of The Arc Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year Award, honoring an outstanding teacher who has demonstrated excellence in educating and including students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Kathy Lukin, multiple needs teacher at Oakdale Elementary, is The Arc Minnesota’s 2013 Teacher of the Year. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

The Arc MN honors Oakdale Elementary teacher Kathy Lukin

Johanna Holub
news editor

Kathy Lukin holds her students to high standards. She does not pity or coddle the children who come into her classroom every day. She puts in extra hours before school and on the weekends to create new learning opportunities for her students. She advocates for more inclusiveness and support for her kids.

While these are strategies many teachers employ to help their students learn, Lukin is also faced with the challenge of teaching special education students, many of whom have severe disabilities.

Lukin, who has worked as an educator for 36 years, has been with the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District since 1991, and before that worked at Northeast Metro Intermediate District 916.

When she first started with District 622, she was the special education program coordinator, but found she missed being in the classroom, so she switched over to teaching. She currently teaches kindergarten through second-graders at Oakdale Elementary.

Now, all the time and effort she puts into helping special education students succeed and learn in the classroom, as well as providing opportunities for inclusion outside school hours, is being recognized.

The Arc Minnesota, a non-profit organization that promotes and protects the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, recently named Lukin “Teacher of the Year” for her hard work and dedication to educating students with multiple needs.

Surprise nomination

Lukin says she was totally surprised to learn she was being recognized by The Arc Minnesota.

“I got this random phone call the week before school started,” she explained. “I was like, ‘What?’ I had no clue.”

The organization had actually reached out to Lukin’s family earlier that year to request letters of recommendation, so her husband, Maplewood Fire Chief Steve Lukin, and one of their three grown daughters set upon the task of asking colleagues, former school administrators and others for endorsements for the prestigious honor.

“When I got off the phone, I remember the look on (my husband’s) face. He asked me what the call was about, and I said, ‘You knew!’”

Receiving the phone call was also emotional, she said. “I cried a little bit, felt terrified a little bit, thinking, ‘Is this for real?’ It was a thrilling but humbling experience for me.”

Former Oakdale Elementary School principal Peter Mau, who worked with Lukin for nine years and is currently the district’s supervisor of educational programs, wrote one of the letters of recommendation.

“Indeed, the moniker ‘teacher’ has characterized every aspect of Kathy’s work,” Mau wrote. “She has been a teacher first and foremost to her students. Beyond her students however, Mrs. Lukin has been a teacher to staff at Oakdale Elementary and throughout the district, to up-and-coming educators through her efforts as a cooperating teacher for student teachers and to the families of the students she serves.”

Mike Gude, communications director for The Arc Minnesota, says the organization chose to honor Lukin with the award because of the extra time and effort she puts in to caring for her students.

“She was chosen because she has a strong commitment to including students fully in not just the classroom but outside of it as well,” Gude stated. “She really goes the extra mile for her students.”

Strategies for success

While the “Teacher of the Year” award singles her out as a dedicated educator, Lukin says there’s no way she could do it by herself.

“Whenever I talk about my career, I always say ‘we,’” she explained. “There’s nothing that I have accomplished alone in my career. I’ve been taught by many of the best parents and professionals...I have problem-solved with families and professionals, so I hardly ever say ‘I.’”

Success, she says, is measured on an individual basis, so certain teaching strategies that work with one student may not work with another. “We break tasks down. We try to use as many pictorals as possible so kids can visualize what they’re doing better.”

Sometimes Lukin spends her weekends drawing up new visuals to go with lesson plans for her students. And it’s worth it, she says, to see her students say, “I did it!”

Despite perceived discrepancies, Lukin said she doesn’t see much difference between the strategies used in a special education classroom and a regular education program.

“Communication for our kids is harder. There are multiple languages and multiple meanings to words that you have to learn. Routines are probably the biggest difference—but looking at regular elementary school classrooms, that’s what they do, too. Elementary school uses a lot of routines to help students learn. Our kids just stay in that mode a little bit longer.”

But successes don’t always come without their challenges. Lukin remembers one of the hardest times she has faced in the classroom was when three students died in the same school year.

“You still get choked up about it, you know? It was a really difficult year. They were people I knew outside of school as well. It’s challenging to grieve for myself and also support the people I was working with.”

Before-school breakfast program

Gude emphasized Lukin’s work on Oakdale Elementary’s before-school breakfast program a couple years ago as an area where she took the lead in advocating for her students.

Lukin explained the program was designed a number of years ago so students who may not be able to eat at home before coming to school could get a nutritious start to the day. However, special education students would arrive at school up to 15 minutes later than the other students, not giving them enough time to take part in the breakfast program.

“Our special ed. buses weren’t coming early enough for our students to access that breakfast program. It’s always a bigger issue. It’s not because someone was thinking they didn’t deserve it. All students need supervision, and especially special education students. Safety is a big issue with our kids. There were some budgetary restraints having to pay staff to come earlier and give up that extra 10 to 15 minutes of prep time before school.”

Thanks to Lukin’s advocacy, the school was able to bring special education students in early enough to be included in before-school breakfast, if families chose to utilize the program.

“It meant a change in transportation and staffing, which is no small feat,” Mau commented.

Deserved recognition

Lukin remains humble about being honored as “Teacher of the Year” at The Arc Minnesota’s annual banquet at the beginning of November.

“I am really one teacher in a sea of thousands who are all desperately working to create better lives for all of us,” she said. “I don’t see myself as anything wonderful except that I work hard to ensure my students have opportunities for inclusions—and they do. Their friends see them in a variety of places. When they need time in a small-group quiet setting, they can do that as well. I feel like our program gives kids that opportunity.”

Mau and many other colleagues, parents, community members, former students and administrators, however, believe Lukin is highly deserving of the recognition.

“I have always thought the greatest compliment I could give a teacher is to tell that person I would want my own child to have him or her for a teacher. I have a child with special needs and wish I had the opportunity for Kathy to be my son’s teacher. I wish it a hundred times over,” Mau summarized in his letter.

“Whether she is recognized by (The Arc MN) or not, to me, Kathy is, and always will be, ‘Teacher of the Year.’”

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.

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