CEDAR FALLS — Judy Kolbeck had been an elementary special education teacher for five years in Burlington when her husband’s job brought them to the Cedar Valley.
Just a week before school started in 1978, she checked with the area education agency about job openings. If Kolbeck pursued a secondary endorsement in special education, she could start a position right away at what was then Central High School in Waterloo.
“But those kids are bigger than me,” she protested.
Kolbeck was reassured by the AEA official’s response: “They’re just little kids in big bodies.” So she took the job and got the secondary endorsement. “I haven’t looked back.”
She spent 16 years working for Waterloo Community Schools before coming to Cedar Falls High School as a special education teacher in the fall of 1994. Today, 24 years later, is Kolbeck’s last day of classes at the school as she heads into retirement. She is one of 10 Cedar Falls Community Schools’ staff retiring this year.
After more than four decades, district administrators say she is one of their longer serving teachers. Nonetheless, “I don’t feel like it’s been 45 years,” said Kolbeck, which may be one of the reasons for her longevity.
The Fairbank native grew up on a farm and was one of nine siblings. As the third oldest, she took care of a lot of the younger children while growing up. “I think I developed that caring attitude you need as a teacher,” she said.
An aunt who was a nun and a teacher got Kolbeck thinking about becoming an educator along with her own third-grade teacher, Mrs. Berry. “I really liked her. She was a good role model to me.”
Kolbeck didn’t decide to go into special education until after she was attending the University of Northern Iowa. “A professor at UNI talked me into it and I haven’t regretted it ever since,” she said.
Her college counselor had to sign off on the classes she wanted to enroll in. When the counselor repeatedly wasn’t in the office, professor Alice Suroski offered to sign off on the classes and convinced Kolbeck to get her degree in special education.
It’s been a good fit. For 10 years at Central and another six years at West High School, she worked in a self-contained classroom for students with mental disabilities. When Kolbeck moved to Cedar Falls, she was part of a new model to educate students with special needs.
She began splitting her day between a resource room where students worked on developing skills in particular subjects and co-teaching in general education classrooms that served some students with special needs. Over the years, she has worked with students in classes from English to math to industrial technology.
“i really like the variety,” said Kolbeck. “I never know from day-to-day what the day is going to hold.”
Still, special education teachers face more paperwork and parent meetings than their colleagues as they write individualized education programs for their students. She admitted that there is a “burnout rate” for special education teachers due to such factors as well as difficulties in the classroom with some students.
“I think they have become more challenging,” Kolbeck said generally of the students they teach. “One of the biggest challenges for me right now is dealing with the mental health issues.”
She expects to keep busy in retirement with gardening, canning, reading, crafts and family history projects. “I’ve got tons of projects,” said Kolbeck. Her husband, David, retired three years ago, so she also plans to make more time for him as well as their grandchildren.
“I enjoy teaching,” she said. “I think it’s only fair now that I spend time with my family.”