Lessons in Learning - Mezera

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By Rachel Mergen

Prairie du Chien native Kayla Mezera has been the special education teacher in the Prairie du Chien School District since 1980, a career she dreamed about as a young child playing teacher.

Mezera attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to receive a degree in special education. She completed a master’s degree from Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minn. Her qualifications also include training in food therapy. 

She found herself interested in the field after witnessing the strength of her sister and a childhood neighbor, who both faced handicaps.

“I was destined to come back here,” Mezera stated. She enjoyed growing up in the community, and her husband, who she met in college, was to take over his family’s local business Mezera Heating and Air Conditioning. 

First, after college, she taught third grade at St. John’s. A few years after, an opening was available at the high school. Mezera applied and was hired, which was the start of her 37 years and counting with the Prairie du Chien Area School District. 

The unique program that Mezera heads, with the help of teaching assistants, is located in a house in front of the Prairie du Chien High School. Students who partake in the program are able to use the house as a sanctuary as they develop important life skills. 

“They can be themselves here,” Mezera said. She noted how there is a clear personality change between when the students are in class and when they are engaged in the activities at the house.

In the mornings, Bluff View Intermediate School students in the program attend classes at the school building. After their classes, they spend time in the house, while the Prairie du Chien High School students attend their regular lessons. At the end of the day, all nine students occupy the home until their parents arrive to pick them up.

For the students, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent cooking together in the house. Mezera explained that the students get to choose the recipes they like to make. It may take them a bit longer than the estimated preparation time, but in the end, as a team, they are filled with pride as they make their own dishes.

Mezera said the power of the students’ time cooking is life-changing. She mentioned how one of her students never truly had an interest in reading, until he realized he was unable to understand the recipes that he wanted to create. This frustration pushed him to work harder on developing his reading skills. 

Furthermore, she remembered one student who was against touching anything. Through cooking, he developed the ability to feel comfortable doing a variety of tasks, including even helping cut raw chicken.

Wednesdays and Fridays are also time to clean the house and do laundry. These activities help the students accept more responsibilities.

Additionally on Fridays, some of the students head over to St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church to help fold programs. Students enjoy the volunteer opportunities that are available to them within the community. 

Those enrolled in the program enjoy walks periodically throughout the week, if the weather is pleasant. Mezera stresses the importance of “good nutrition and exercise.”

Occasionally, the students go to the store and help shop for the schools. These small trips help the students develop greater social skills and learn appropriate public behaviors. 

The students also take part in some more extravagant activities. Once a month, Mezera plans an exciting outing. These outings have included traveling to Vesperman Farms in Lancaster, the University of Wisconsin Planetarium and museums in La Crosse and Madison, along with local events like bowling.

“Nothing is ever the same,” Mezera explained. Each year, she experiences new challenges. She faces everything with a smile though, as she finds herself enjoying each of her students’ “own unique little personalities.”

“The ultimate goal is to have them develop into the best people that they can be,” Mezera said. This goal is similar to that of any teacher’s, no matter what grade or field they may be in. She holds high expectations for her students, similar to the ones she has for her own three children, because there isn’t any real differences between them, she believes. 

Mezera’s favorite part of her job is “when [the students] learn new things, and when they do something new and are proud of themselves.” She finds happiness in watching their progress.

“They all create something special,” she noted about those enrolled in the program, who inspire her everyday. 

She realizes that it is important to examine the students’ family dynamics and their sense of self-worth. “It’s not just about the academics, but the whole person. They need to feel good about themselves,” Mezera said.

She continues to fight through the struggle of “not being able to fix everything.”  She doesn’t wish to retire anytime soon, and wants “to teach until I can’t teach anymore.”

When the conclusion of her teaching years comes, she is excited to spend time with her three, soon to be four, grandchildren.

In addition to teaching special education, Mezera helps with forensics and does the housekeeping for her husband’s business. 

“This job wouldn’t be possible without teaching assistants and the wonderful school administration,” she revealed in appreciation. “The support of the community has been great.”

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