BEMIDJI -- Students in Katie Wangberg’s class can’t hear her speak out loud, but they always listen to what she has to say.

Wangberg is a teacher of American Sign Language at Bemidji High School who is both deaf and nonvocal. Despite the challenge of not being able to hear in the classroom, or in her personal life for that matter, she’s exceptional at what she does. Wangberg was even voted the best teacher in the Pioneer’s Best of the Bemidji Area publication, but that merely confirmed what many of her students knew from the start.

Even Wangberg will admit being deaf creates challenges at times, but some of those who know her say she’s used it to her advantage and that it’s part of the reason she’s so successful in the classroom.

Now a decade into her career at Bemidji High School, Wangberg has helped turn the tide for the awareness of American Sign Language and deaf culture in general for the local area.

“I believe that Katie’s deafness on top of her giant personality has helped her be a better teacher,” Wangberg’s husband, Stephen, said via email. “She is able to use it to her advantage since it forces her students to experience her culture firsthand and communicate using her language. It makes learning ASL more authentic and fun.”

Wangberg was born deaf and spent many of her formative years in a school for the deaf. She followed her husband, Stephen, who is also deaf, back to Bemidji since he was raised in the area. Today, they have two young, hearing children who use ASL as their first language.

Wangberg’s passion for her students is apparent to anyone who simply walks into her classroom, where a whole slew of student photographs hang on the wall next to her desk.

Before her intro-level students develop a foundational base of sign language, she uses a number of methods to communicate with them. Wangberg uses slides, or she can simply write something down. In the first week or two, her students rely a bit more on gesturing than actual signs when they’re trying to communicate something to her

Sometimes, but not always, she also has the help of a student intern who already went through the lower levels of ASL and wanted to continue on with the language. Wangberg has noticed, though, that the students in the classes without an intern tend to pick up the language faster than those who have the intern to lean on.

Wangberg didn’t originally see herself working with high school students, but she did know that she wanted to work with people. And, at that -- she’s a master.

“My favorite part is not about the teaching; it’s about the relationships I have with my students,” Wangberg said through an interpreter, Brandi Hoie. “I’ve had students share really, really personal things with me; It makes me feel good that they feel safe here and that they can trust me with that.”

On Mondays, she will go around the room and speak with each of her students. They talk about their lives; their weekends; anything really. All the while, the students build on their sign language abilities and cultivate a respect for their teacher.

Connecting with students

Wangberg has a rule for her students: they can friend her on Facebook after they graduate.

Kimmy Cole was one of Wangberg’s students a number of years ago. She originally was going to take Spanish for her language credit, but decided to take ASL instead since her mother was interested in it. It turned out to be a good choice because since then she began to invest more and more time in the field of study. Today she’s working toward becoming an ASL interpreter.

Looking back at her time in Wangberg’s classroom, though, Cole knows she took more away from that experience than just how to communicate using her hands.

“She’s still there for me, even five years later,” Cole said. “She’s definitely become a very strong mentor in my life, and I’m just super appreciative of that.”

Caitlin McCollum, another former ASL student at Bemidji High School, said there were countless days she would stay after school just to continue talking with Wangberg. When McCollum saw Wangberg was one of the teachers nominated for the Best of the Bemidji Area, she didn’t have any doubts Wangberg would rise to the top.

“As soon as I saw that poll, I was like ‘there is no way that she won’t get that.’ There’s so many people that would be willing to vote a million times over for her,” McCollum said.

Outside the classroom, Wangberg’s life is a lot like other people’s, though she sometimes needs to plan for adjustments. When making a doctor’s appointment, she may have to schedule a time when an interpreter can come with. She can’t wake up to the sound of an alarm clock, so she has a system that vibrates her bed at the chosen time. When her children were younger, she could connect the system to her baby monitor so that her bed would vibrate when the children cried.

Aside from the students in her classroom, the ASL community in Bemidji is small. That means that social opportunities for Wangberg are not always readily available. She only knows two other ASL-using deaf people in town who are her age, and one of them is her husband.

Wangberg said if her children were deaf, she would have moved somewhere that could offer them more resources.

“Sometimes I feel really lonely and isolated,” Wangberg said.

And yet, she has come to embrace her role in the community.

“I know how to advocate for myself...I like being here because I can teach and educate people about deaf culture and about the deaf community,” Wangberg said.

The limited opportunities for deaf people, though, is something that Wangberg has started to turn around through the sheer number of students who have come through her classroom.

Stephen Wangberg has lived in the Bemidji area his entire life. As a deaf person, he often would have to find “different ways to communicate” when he would interact with people throughout the community.

That has since begun to change.

“Katie has made a huge impact in our community; it has gotten to the point where I can pretty much guarantee someone will know how to sign no matter where we go,” Stephen Wangberg said.