ERIN TIERNEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO - Kathi Holst in her room at Creswell Middle School. The veteran educator “dedicates her life to students,” a colleague said.

CRESWELL — One of the last vehicles in the middle school parking lot on a cool, calm Friday evening, Kathi Holst’s dedication to education spans well beyond that of a traditional school day. 

It’s that dedication that’s helped Holst, Creswell resident and a special education teacher at Creswell Middle School, earn the “Teacher of the Year'' award through the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She took first place with the Creswell post, then first place for District 13, then again for the entire state. Now, she is in the running for the national VFW award.

“Kathi’s was the first special education teacher's portfolio that had come across the desk of the Department of Oregon chair and he was very impressed with her,” said Bob Beck, district commander. 

Her colleagues echoed much of the same sentiment across the board.

“Kathi is the hardest working person I've ever met,” said educator Heidi Rakas. “She is the first person to work and the last person to leave … She dedicates her life to students, and goes above and beyond for our students and everyone she works with.”

Holst has been an educator at CMS since 1994, though being a teacher wasn’t always the plan. Growing up, Holst speculated that she might be a lawyer … that is, until a newspaper story above the fold caught her eye. 

“When I was reading the paper one day — I must have been a freshman or sophomore in high school — it was the first day of school and there was a teacher on the front cover,” Holst said, recalling the expression on the teacher’s face. “She looked so happy; I read the article and was like, ‘that seems amazing.’”

Her memory trailed back to her grandmother, Marguerite Karp, who was one of the “pioneering special education teachers'' in the state. Karp worked in Myrtle Creek, Hillsboro, and trained special education teachers at the University of Oregon. 

“It made me feel like I was following in my grandmother’s footsteps,” when she received her student teaching assignment from the University of Oregon in 1992, though she admits she wasn’t initially too pleased with her placement at CMS. 

She blushed at her initial bias. “I was a Eugene girl through and through … I was like, ‘where even is Creswell?’,” she said with a gentle laugh. “At first, I felt like a smaller school would have less to offer. But I fell in love with the school, with the people, with the community. I realized that’s not the case at all; in fact, smaller schools have a lot more to offer.”

Middle school is already a difficult time for students. “They're growing and changing at different rates,” she said. It changes the social dynamics between peers because students “may not see eye-to-eye anymore as they develop differently. I always tell the parents they're gonna come out on the other side together again, but you know, it changes so much.”

Coming from a school with only one one elementary, middle and high school alleviates the stress of kids having to reestablish the “pecking order” among other kids, she explains, adding that a smaller school is “a great environment for kids to grow up and prosper together.”

Holst is recognized among her colleagues as a well-organized, compassionate and an uplifting leader and mentor. 

“She is always the most positive person in the room,'' said Kendra Anderson, educator and past award winner. “Her unlimited abundance of kindness and patience makes her an amazing teacher and a wonderful coworker.”

Her positivity is a thoughtfully honed characteristic, and it speaks to her silly side. 

“I try to be light-hearted and pleasant, with a lot of humor — the ‘roll your eyes’ type of humor because, well, I think it's funny,” Holst said. “Maybe the kids don't think it's funny, but they know that we're all trying to get there together.” 

She aims to never show frustration — no matter how many times she may have to repeat herself — and meet kids where they are. 

“Kathi quietly brings her joy and skill to everyone around her,” said Kim Kuhnhausen, educator and past award winner. “She provides instruction in a personalized manner … and creates strategies to help all students. She scaffolds the lessons so the objectives are successfully reached and exceeded.”

The goal is to achieve together. Holst has devised a variable grading scale that allows her students to break down tasks into smaller chunks, set goals and aim for clearly defined targets in order to meet their desired grade, all while meeting or exceeding state standards. 

“Kathi aligns all her special education lessons to state standards, incorporating as much as possible the content from general education language arts as well as social studies standards,” CMS principal Julie Johansen said in her letter of recommendation. “She easily spends over 10 hours a day working on individualized plans and lessons to ensure all students make progress.” 

Holst explains an occasional stigma or reluctance around special education classes, “as if that’s a class you go to when you don’t know what you’re doing. But we do hard work here … and it’s gratifying to see students learn they are capable of doing it. I think that makes them prouder because they’re reading the same things as their friends in other classrooms. They realize that they’re … doing work differently to get to the same target.”

For Holst, that sense of connectedness is key. 

“Kids have to feel like they belong. That builds strong citizens,” she said. She wants her students to develop their skills “to make informed decisions with logic and reason,” and hopes to be a positive force in shaping their lives. After all, they’re positive forces in hers. 

“I can still remember the names and the faces of the very first kids I taught,” she said, her eyes wincing from smiling through her mask.

Holst said she is honored to have been recognized by the VFW and her peers, noting that these are the first awards she’s received of this caliber. 

The national awards are traditionally announced in March, Beck said, though the pandemic may impact that timeline this year.