A school administrator once asked me, “What is special about special education students?” He paused and then answered his own question: “Nothing.”
Then he asked, “What is special about special education teachers?” Pause. “Everything!” That was the answer he gave: EVERYTHING. If there was one special ed teacher who personified his riddle, it was Meg Sekel. Meg worked for the Beaver Dam School District for twenty-five years and said she loved every minute.
Not only did she love teaching the kids in her classroom, but she was happy to introduce the rest of the student population to her students and stressed the fact that they were just like everybody else. She wanted ‘her kids’ integrated into the student body and did that in overt as well as subtle ways. Meg was the quintessential teacher, and people noticed, from the students who helped in her classroom, to the community at large.
There were students who chose teaching because of her. There were people who selected the field of special ed because of her influence, and there were those who felt confident and grateful she was there for their children.
When Tanya Kircher met Meg, Tanya was a high school student who helped in Meg’s classroom. Twenty-five years later, Tanya’s daughter was in Meg’s classroom. “Many of these kids are unable to verbally communicate, yet Meg understood and appreciated their every need. She made sure these kids were treated equally and given opportunities many of them wouldn’t otherwise have. She was the most selfless person I have ever encountered.”
In 2016, Meg Sekel was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. In 2017, she was given an all-clear and celebrated survivor status. In October 2018, she was told cancer had spread to her lungs, and all this occurred while she was teaching her students with a positive attitude and a loving heart.
“I think my greatest challenge was keeping a positive attitude in front of the kids. The students don’t need to know you are having a bad day, so I did,” said Sekel. But according to many of her co-workers, that is something she always displayed, along with her infectious smile.
In fact, Sandy McFerrin put it this way, saying, “Meg was always making you feel better about yourself. Even when she was sick from chemo, she remembered to ask about something in your life and comment about it. She would smile and not complain.”
This trait was there since the very beginning. According to McFerrin, even when she was pregnant and queasy on a bus trip to Nashville with their students, she never asked for any special consideration. One student’s most vivid memory is simply, “Mrs. Sekel was sick on the bus.” That trip and others changed the lives of many students who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to travel and experience Nashville or Disney. Meg was always all-in, doing whatever it would take to not only get her students out and about but treat them with respect, dignity, and equality. “I loved working with Meg and we have become very close over the last 30 years. She is very special to me,” said Sandy McFerrin.
McFerrin is not the only one who had great respect for Meg. Dave Sager, Cross Categorical Special Education Teacher and Co-Department Head, has this to say: “I have known Ms. Sekel since I came to the Beaver Dam School District 29 years ago. She is one of the most caring, compassionate teachers that I have had the privilege to work with. She has treated the challenging children she has worked with as if they were her family. Her comradery and leadership will be greatly missed. She has been a role model for me for what a special education teacher should be.”
Tim White adds, “Meg’s greatest strength is her patience. She never lost control as she worked through countless emotionally challenging situations. She has always treated co-workers with a high level of trust, empowering assistants and building a team that made the educational process a true success.” He also said she was like wonder woman with a great big smile.
Julie Brewer has been a teaching assistant and is honored to called Meg friend. “I don’t know of any person personally or professionally who has touched as many lives as Meg has.”
Touching lives is what she did best. Many of her former students want people to know things like, “She taught me how to cook,” and “She taught me how to respect,” and “She is my best friend.” Any teacher would be happy to hear, “I just love her so much and she was the best teacher of my life.” Meg heard it often and with enthusiasm.
Carter McKnight thought she was the best and clearly his favorite teacher because, “She took me to prom! It was fun!” Another former student said that, “She was a sweet, loving lady.”
Ashley Krug said, “She taught me how to be nice to people. We would call her the Queen.” Tony Grotenhaus added, “She was the best teacher I ever had. She taught me how to do math and now I am really good at it.”
Amy Patterson, who is employed by Green Valley Enterprises, said that Meg paved the way for her to help special needs clients at GVE. “She was a very caring and loving teacher and mentor,” Amy added.
Meg came from a family of educators, and her daughter and son-in-law are teachers as well. Being a mentor and an inspiration to so many puts her in a very special category. Her daughter, Mary Claire Olufs, is a kindergarten teacher pursuing her master’s degree with a reading emphasis. She credits her mom influencing her desire to teach. “She taught me to work hard, care for others and always be my best. She was unbelievably kind and caring and always spread laughter and love.”
Laura Minnig knew Meg in high school and said she was so honored to work side-by-side such a wonderful teacher since 2002. Treating co-workers and students with respect and bringing out the best in everyone was one of her traits. “Meg always found a way to adapt a student’s needs to enable them to succeed.” Laura and many others agreed that because of Meg, many who observed her work went into education, including Special Education. She made it look as remarkable and rewarding as it can be.
When Meg Exner was in high school, she was part of a group of eighteen young women who decided to call themselves the Evil Women. According to Meg, no one can quite remember why they called themselves that, except maybe to be cool and maybe because they liked a song by that name. They liked it enough to have blue and white t-shirts made announcing their group and strengthening their bond.
The group wears a new t-shirt now. It’s pink. And this shirt has a new and meaningful message: “Team Meg. Stronger Together,” and the words on the back say “We’ve got your back.” The t-shirt may have changed, but the support didn’t. This group remains in touch, and supporting each other. Meg said she would get calls or messages daily during her treatments and surgeries. “It’s been very, very wonderful.”
These shirts were made by Kelli Dercks, the art teacher at Beaver Dam High School, where Meg taught. With three hundred shirts out there, the Evil Women were in good company with many others who supported Meg.
Meg spoke of everyone being so helpful and supportive. Her family was ever-present and assisting in any way they could. She felt the love and was truly grateful.
If you ask Klara Armstrong, she will tell you, “Mrs. Sekel is the best teacher at the high school.” As for the other teachers, I doubt that any would disagree with Klara.
Meg passed away while this article was being written. The last time I talked with her was two days before she passed, when I reached out to ask a few clarifying questions. She was chipper and chatty and tired, but told me to call back or stop over if I wanted to chat some more. That is who she was.
This may have been her last year in the classroom, and her last year on earth, but she will be in the hearts of all who knew her for years to come.