One last ‘back to school’: Teacher Rich Kehoe reflects on more than 40 years in education
BEMIDJI – Rich Kehoe, an elementary special-education teacher, has his own way of connecting with each of his students.
“You can be their friend, but you can’t cross that line and be their buddy,” he said. “As a teacher, you need to demand their respect … It’s a tough line.”
Kehoe, who works at Lincoln Elementary with students with emotional and behavioral disorders, is entering his 42nd year as a teacher. This school year will be his last; he plans to retire next spring.
“If something ever became a job, I said I would quit,” Kehoe said. “This is not a job to me. To me, it’s fun and I enjoy it.”
His career began in 1971 with sixth-graders in Brandon, Minn. In 1986, he left Brandon to obtain his special-education degree through Bemidji State University.
“I don’t know why I chose it,” Kehoe said of his decision to go into special education, “but I like kids, I like working with kids and I really like working with kids that have some problems.”
He was hired by the Bemidji School District in 1990 by Jon Huttemier, who retired in 2004 as assistant superintendent and director of special education.
Kehoe initially was responsible for working with students at Deer Lake, J.W. Smith and Northern elementary schools. He also had a self-contained classroom comprised of special-education students who were not mainstreamed in classrooms with traditional students.
“He was a very calm influence, very relaxed as a teacher,” Huttemier said. “There just wasn’t any child that he couldn’t work with.”
As his career developed, Kehoe gave up his self-contained classroom and continued to work with students at elementary schools. He now works exclusively with students at Lincoln. His students today are all mainstreamed, in regular classrooms, visiting him throughout the day if they need help.
Kehoe also is known to walk around the school frequently stopping by classrooms and visiting the students in the hallways. One student affectionately referred to him as the “jailer” because he could hear Kehoe’s key jingling as he approached.
Kehoe, who also coached football when he was working in Brandon, said the key to special education is identifying each child’s specific needs.
One student, a girl, would come to Kehoe’s room and need 30-40 minutes to vent and blow off steam before she was willing to talk about what had happened in her classroom that bought her down to Kehoe’s room.
The key to working with her, Kehoe explained, was to not engage her until she was ready.
One day, she had just come down to Kehoe’s room and was sitting near a wall when she began banging on a file cabinet. Kehoe, watching her, simply told her not to hurt herself and waited for her to calm down so they could talk things out.
A passing custodian heard the commotion and saw the child banging on the file cabinet. He laid into her about damaging other people’s property and the girl, in return, verbally exploded at the janitor, who looked toward Kehoe for help.
“‘Just leave,’ that’s what I told him,” Kehoe said.
After the custodian walked away, the girl looked to Kehoe and was ready to open up.
Kehoe, who usually is alerted to his kids’ behaviors by their teachers, also has learned over the years to not accuse the students of bad behaviors but to talk with them first.
When a child was sent to his room for supposedly hitting another student, the boy insisted to Kehoe that he hadn’t hit anyone.
After listening for a bit, Kehoe simply asked the student, “Were your hands on his body?”
“Were your hands supposed to be on his body?” Kehoe continued.
It might take 15 minutes for the student to recognize that even if he didn’t exactly hit another student, he still was misbehaving. Once that was acknowledged, Kehoe and the student were able to talk about appropriate conduct.
“Kids are smart,” Kehoe said. “You sometimes need to work with them to understand them. You get to know their little ticks, their little tells.”