Recognizing retiring U.P. teachers: Karen Usitalo, Breitung Township Schools

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KINGSFORD, Mich. (WJMN) – As Local 3 continues to recognize retiring teachers across the U.P., Local 3 caught up with a special education teacher, Karen Usitalo who is leaving Woodland Elementary in the Breitung Township Schools District.

Darren Petschar, the principal at Woodland Elementary spoke on what it takes to be a special education teacher.

“It takes patience and you know it really takes a vision because they look at where the child starts and where they want them to be,” said Petschar. “And having that vision and looking at those areas, just celebrating growth.”

Petschar says his school has been fortunate to have Karen Usitalo in that department since 1997.

“Something that really changed me is when I went through a training for students with Autism called START and we talked about these kids,” said Usitalo. “You kind of need to join them in their world and kind of make that connection with them and then work along and a lot of those kids, people saw as not really having the abilities that they had because they presented them so differently. So I just think that that really helped me evolve and helped me to see the good in all kids.”

Usitalo says throughout her years of teaching she’s worked in a few different school districts (Menominee, Manistee and Iron-Dickinson ISD) and worked with students of all ages.

“If there were no weeds we’d all have a garden,” said Usitalo. “You know there are some kids that are harder to educate than others but you know those kids have capacity and connection with us just as well and we need to find a way to make those connections and a way to make them successful.”

Petschar started at Woodland the same year as Usitalo and says she will be greatly missed.

“There are kids that we like, they’re never going to do that and because of Karen and because of what she’s done,” said Petschar. “We talk about our upper elementary teachers are like thank you Karen, thank you Karen, how did you do that? It’s the patience and love that she gives.”

Now that Usitalo is retiring, this Minnesota native says she will be spending a lot of time at her family cabin there and traveling and visiting family. She also says it’s been a privilege to end her teaching career working for Breitung Township Schools.

“The kid element is what’s kept me in education for all these years but it sure helps to have an awesome staff behind you and I do appreciate that,” said Usitalo.

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