JEFFERSON — The face-to-face connection always has been extremely important to Kristin Peppey. The special education teacher at West Elementary School, who retired after 34 years with the School District of Jefferson, says leaving during a final quarter in pandemic-induced isolation was “surreal.”
Described by her peers as a tireless advocate for her special needs students, Peppey knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a child.
“I had a first cousin with Down’s Syndrome, and I have vivid memories of spending time with her at the public beach in Whitewater,” Peppey said. “She loved to go off the diving board. Teens would make fun of her because she was different, and I remember thinking she deserved better than that.”
Peppey found herself drawn to special education at an early age. She spent her first year of teaching in Milwaukee, in a federally funded “Birth-to-3” preschool program for children with significant disabilities.
However, the grant supporting that job dried up after one year, and Peppey found herself applying for positions again. She looked at teaching in Milwaukee, where she would have taken over a classroom “everyone else had given up on.”
Then she learned of an opening in Jefferson, which provided a completely different environment. After one visit to the school, she got to meet the students and observe the program firsthand, noting its strong parent involvement and administrative support.
“It was a difference of night and day,” Peppey said. “This was where I wanted to be.”
Over the past 34 years, Peppey has built on that strong foundation, seeking to provide opportunities for her students, to advocate for them to allow them to reach their greatest potential, and to connect school and community.
There have been many highlights over the past three-plus decades, from meeting with a parent support group that eventually took on a life of it own to consumer education shopping trips with students to Special Olympics preparation and competitions.
“I had the privilege of coaching Special Olympics with Mr. Dimond (former gym teacher at West),” Peppey said. “One of my students from that time served as a little ‘assistant coach.’ Now he has grown up and his daughters are attending West.”
Through a program called “Students, Parents and the Reading Connection” (SPARC), the school put together themed backpacks that students got to check out for two weeks at a time.
At the end of the checkout period, Peppey remembers working with students through the After-School Club to check the bags back in.
“This provided more of a social atmosphere for our kids, who might not get a lot of these opportunities,” Peppey said.
Over the years, the memories that Peppey has cherished the most revolve around her students’ successes, as they grasped concepts, participated in events and took pride in their work.
Knowing she was planning to retire this year, Peppey was looking forward to building a few more memories as the school year wrapped up with the traditional flurry of activities — spring fieldtrips, the all-school field day, last-day-of-school festivities and so on.
Instead, West students and others around the world were treated to a COVID-19 shutdown and had to learn to navigate their school day through a computer screen.
The sudden transition to online learning was overwhelming at first, Peppey said.
“All I wanted to do was to make connections with my students,” she said.
Because of the population of students Peppey serves, this could be a real challenge. While some of her special education students could participate fully in online learning with their classmates, for others, the transition was difficult to understand.
Trying to maintain that personal connection, Peppey and her paraprofessional recorded themselves singing songs and reading stories. They heard back from parents that some of their students would watch those videos again and again.
Realizing that screen-centered learning was just not going to cut it for many of their students, the West educators put together a hands-on activity bag each week, including activities to do with pencil and paper; reading and math exercises; crafts; and fun games and/or puzzles that proved really meaningful for Peppey’s students.
“I put out a call (online) for donations of gently used games and puzzles, and there was just an outpouring of responses,” Peppey said. “That provided me with a wealth of things I could distribute to students a little bit at a time.”
And despite the pandemic-related restrictions, West administrators tried to make the end of the school year special — at a distance.
One of the ways they did that was by hosting a “drive-by parade,” which was received enthusiastically by students and families.
Peppey and the school’s other retiree, Mary Emerick, were asked to report to the parade route early for special recognition — a complete surprise to them, as they thought the invite went out to all of the staff.
Since it couldn’t hold in-person ceremonies, the school released an end-of-year video.
“It was really beautiful,” Peppey said. “We watched it simultaneously with the students and other teachers. But nothing really replaces being in person. I feel really bad for the fifth-graders who ended their elementary years like this.”
The last day of the school year for teachers was dedicated to staff training and discussion about bridging the gaps as students moved up a grade without necessarily having covered all of the material they would have had the school been holding regular classes. Peppey remembers attending her last staff meeting online.
Instead of the hugs she might have expected had teachers been able to meet in person, Peppey remembers the sign-off, with everyone waving at their computer screens.
“That was how my career ended,” Peppey said. “It was so surreal.”
Commenting to the school’s maintenance man, Dale Zastrow, Peppey said that had she known how 2019-20 was going to end, she never would have applied to retire this year.
Zastrow’s response, however, gave her some perspective, noting that Peppey was in a good position to be retiring now since, with the pandemic continuing, no one knew what the fall would look like.
One thing is for sure, though: After almost three-and-a-half decades in education in Jefferson, Peppey has impacted many lives.
And that influence is bound to carry on for many years to come through Peppey’s daughter, Hannah Kleven, who has followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a special education teacher at Jefferson Middle School.