A group of memorable teachers helped Michaela Heuckendorf ’19 overcome the challenges that once made it difficult for her to learn.

Tables in the classroom have turned.

Heuckendorf, a recent Saint Mary’s graduate, is now making it her mission to help others overcome their challenges to become the best students they can be.

The Plymouth, Minn., native was diagnosed with a learning disability in seventh grade, but she discovered that it’s OK not everyone learns the same way or at the same rate.

“I didn’t like having a learning disability at all,” she explained. “I thought having extra time on my tests, having teacher notes, and making corrections on assignments was giving me an advantage over my classmates. I really had to sit down and accept the fact that it’s OK I learn differently and it’s really good that I have tools and teachers who want me to be the best student I can be, and they’re allowing me to use those tools.”

Using her experiences, Heuckendorf now wants to be a special education teacher — to inspire and encourage students as she once was. “I had the most amazing accommodation specialist team in school,” she said. “I give them all the props, because I would have not had the success I had growing up and in school without their help. I decided this is what I want to do; I want to help kids who learn differently because I learn differently.”

She found her path at Saint Mary’s University within the education program and graduated this spring with an undergraduate degree in educational studies. She not only kept busy in classes (taking additional psychology classes and two special education graduate classes) but was also a member of the women’s golf team and founding member of the Saint Mary’s University Figure Skating Club (she’s been a competitive figure skater since age 3).

Heuckendorf said she especially appreciated the Saint Mary’s education program because of the time education students spent learning about each grade setting, which was helpful as she decided whether she truly wanted to become a teacher and, if so, which age range of students was the best fit. Her senior year, she chose to do an internship at Winona Middle School.

“I picked the middle school setting, specifically fifth grade, because I remember learning in my middle education methods course that this was a really critical time for students. They’re going through puberty, adolescence, growing up — it’s a lot for them,” she said. “Being able to meet to the social as well as academic needs was a really big theme for me.”

Heuckendorf (right) poses in the classroom with her cooperating teacher, Kim Christensen, fifth-grade special education teacher at Winona Middle School.

Heuckendorf was paired with the fifth-grade special education teacher and had the opportunity to team teach math and reading classes and sit in on individualized education plan (IEP) meetings.

“This time around, I was on the other side of the table. I wasn’t the student, I was the teacher,” said Heuckendorf. “Being able to have that connection of my own prior experiences with that was a really cool thing.”

Creating memorable experiences with the students was a highlight for her.

“They all have different learning techniques; they all learn differently,” she said. “So just being able to find that individualized connection for every student in the classroom and being able to meet those needs, whether it was academic, social, or behavioral needs, was my favorite part.”

This fall, Heuckendorf will pursue a master’s degree in special education with licensure at Saint Mary’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs in Minneapolis. She hopes to build on what she’s already learned at Saint Mary’s and through her internship, some of which she shared at a recent Celebration of Scholarship event where she was the first educational studies major to deliver a presentation.

Her research largely focused on her internship experience at Winona Middle School. She explained, “Each student is special. It’s important to consider effective tools to help meet those special needs, social needs as well as academics. To differentiate and put into perspective through personal experience and teaching philosophies, the knowledge gained as an educational studies major well prepared me to challenge and encourage my students’ success.”

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