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Kettner has been teaching kindergartners for 33 years

For 33 years now, Denise Kettner has been teaching Detroit Lakes kindergartners the basics of reading, writing and math.

In fact, Kettner even did her student teaching at Washington Elementary, before graduating with a bachelor's degree in elementary and early childhood education from Bemidji State University.

She has also been a loyal member of the local teacher's union since joining the staff at Rossman Elementary -- and for the past five years, has served as president of Education Minnesota-Detroit Lakes.

Before that, she was on the negotiating team for five consecutive master teaching contracts, and recently, has begun participating on the state level as well, as a member of the Education Minnesota Political Advisory Committee.

For all of her work in shaping the minds of some of Detroit Lakes' youngest residents, as well as on behalf of her fellow teachers, Kettner was one of three people nominated to be this year's Teacher of the Year for Detroit Lakes Public Schools, along with English teachers Mark Hassenstab (high school) and Samantha Gulon (middle school).

On Monday, March 21, she officially became the latest recipient of the Michelle Harris Educator of the Year Award, named for the beloved Detroit Lakes teacher who lost her battle with cancer in 2009.

"She (Harris) was such an inspiring, positive influence on all those around here," Kettner said of the organization's decision to name the award in Harris's honor.

Kettner was nominated for the award back in January, during a local Education Minnesota meeting -- which came as a complete surprise to her.

"They read the nomination forms first, and don't give the names until the end," Kettner said. It took her a few moments to realize they were talking about her.

"I was totally blown away," she said of her reaction. "I never even thought about the possibility of being nominated -- it was a huge surprise."

A native of Mahnomen, Kettner was the oldest of seven children, which is where she learned her nurturing skills.

"I knew kids," she said of her reasons for going into teaching. "I wanted to make an impact in their lives.

"Introducing them to new things that they've never learned before -- that's exciting," she said. "They sit there and listen, totally absorbed in what you're talking about."

For instance, Kettner, who grew up on a farm, sometimes tells stories of what that was like -- and her students love to hear all about it.

"And I love introducing the kids to new vocabulary, new language," she added.

For instance, a word like "palindrome" may be considered above a kindergartner's reading level, but Kettner said they can understand the concept of words that are spelled the same way backwards and forwards, like "mom" and "dad."

Or "onomatopoeia," which refers to any word that imitates or suggests the source of the sound it describes, like "splash" or "bark," is also something that a kindergartner can understand, even if they have difficulty spelling the word.

And Kettner also loves participating in fun events with her students, like Teddy Bear Day or Green Eggs & Ham Day -- in which the theme of the day is incorporated into everyday classroom learning as well as special games, crafts and other activities.

"You see the joy, the excitement in their faces -- that's fun," she said.

As for what Kettner finds most challenging about her job, she's quick to note, "It's not the kids. It's the ever-changing requirements for teachers."

A teacher's required knowledge of curriculum and standards for managing student behavior has changed and expanded greatly since she first started teaching, Kettner noted.

But that doesn't change what she loves most about her job -- the kids. Even though she never married, and doesn't have any of her own, Kettner said, "I love children. I love watching them learn and grow, helping them to meet their goals."

It's the most rewarding part of going to work every day, she added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454