For Katelyn Freiert, Mid Rivers Newsmagazine’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, volunteering with Special Olympics and Variety, the Children’s Charity of St. Louis, sealed the deal on what she wanted to do after high school.
In fact, her advice to would-be-teachers is to “try to volunteer with some of the great organizations out there.”
“I absolutely loved coaching kids on a Special Olympics soccer team,” she said. And, although she’s no longer coaching, her passion for helping kids score hasn’t dimmed.
“I just think what makes Katelyn stand out is her passion, number one, and her willingness to not set limits on anyone, and then just the relationships she builds with students and parents,” Ostmann Elementary Principal Cary Jennings said.
Freiert has been a teacher at Ostmann for four years in a special education/intensive language and behavior supports classroom. Most years, she has about eight students in her room, the majority of whom are “on the spectrum.”
“Just like autism is a spectrum, being in my room, students can be all over the spectrum,” Freiert explained. And learning, she said, takes place both inside and outside of her classroom.
Her principal said that’s because their teacher does not believe in limits.
“There’s no ‘I can’t’ or ‘they can’t.’ She’s willing to do whatever she can to help get her students to their highest education level,” Jennings said.
Eva Obirek, who nominated Freiert for the Teacher of the Year award, echoed Jennings’ praise.
“Ms. Freiert has taught two of my children, both of whom are on the autism spectrum,” Obirek wrote in her letter of nomination. “She always looks for new ways to correct their behaviors and to teach my kids to be independent with the help of other specialists – occupational, speech/language, music and classroom teachers.”
Freiert said the Obirek children “have made extraordinary progress, but it wasn’t just because of me; it was because of their paraprofessionals, who are amazing, and their parents who work with them outside of school.”
Next year, Freiert will be the behavioral specialist at Fort Zumwalt’s newly opened Early Childhood Education Center.
“I’m changing roles a little bit, but I’ll still be a teacher,” she said. “I’m really excited to be able to focus in on helping to change behaviors and teach kids replacement behaviors that are more appropriate.”
She added that she will miss her Ostmann students and parents.
“I have been lucky to have parents [of students] who really support their kids outside of school,” Freiert said. “I think it’s so funny when a parent will say, ‘Do you think they [their student] can do this?’ Well, of course they can do it – whether they’re going to need a ton of support or they can do it independently, I still think that they should be involved in activities with their peers and have a chance to participate.”
Freiert’s determination to stretch her students, and their parents, is a quality Obirek appreciated most.
“I sometimes feel like she has been my other hand in raising, nurturing and teaching my kids to be successful in school and in the adult world that awaits them,” Obirek said.
Both Obirek and her children attended Freiert’s award presentation, which took place at an all-school assembly on May 23, the second-to-last day of school. Her family – “Mom, Dad, Grandpa and his wife, my cousin and her children, and my brother Tommy” – were there, as was Russ Miller, branch manager/assistant vice president of Busey Bank-O’Fallon, one of the award sponsors.
“We’re very proud to be part of the program,” Miller said of the bank’s participation. “We look forward to it every year.”
Other sponsors included Dobbs Tire & Auto Centers, Dream Play Recreation, SuperCuts of O’Fallon and St. Charles, and Sylvan Learning Center. Along with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine, those sponsors provided recognition that included a plaque, flowers, a dinner certificate and an iPad for Freiert, plus cake to share with her colleagues.
“It was a huge surprise and I’m so grateful for it,” Freiert said. “I don’t ever need recognition, but it’s very nice to get that recognition and it’s crazy to get it for something I love to do.”