NORTH MANKATO — In her 16 years as a special education teacher, Emily Seppmann has seen a distracting swell in paperwork requirements but also a valuable growth in staff collaboration.

As an active member of the Mankato Teachers' Association, Seppmann has advocated for more support for teachers who work with students with special needs.

Seppmann, who teaches secondary students in the Futures program, recently was selected by the teachers union as the 2018-2019 Mankato Teacher of the Year.

The union annually invites nominations and selects a member for local recognition and to advance to the state contest.

Seppmann said the greatest reward of receiving the honor has been hearing from former students and their families about how well they are doing.

“Some days are hard. So when you get to see that you are having an impact it really helps,” she said.

Special education teachers need more support to tide high burnout rates, Seppmann said. The number of special education teachers across the country declined by more than 17 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to Education Week.

“Take care of your own mental health and make sure you ask for help ” Seppmann said is her primary advice for new colleagues.

Mankato Public Schools has expanded opportunities for its teachers, social workers and other staff to come together to problem-solve challenges, the honored teacher said.

That collaboration is one of her favorite parts of the job, the 1999 graduate of Loyola Catholic School said.

Her least favorite is the growing amount of state and federally mandated paperwork. Some of the paperwork is unnecessary and takes away time that could be better spent with students, she said.

Seppmann has spent her entire career in Mankato Public Schools — first at Roosevelt Elementary School, then with Futures for two years, then back to Roosevelt and this fall she returned to Futures.

Seppmann taught Peter Lorentz when he was in second through fifth grades at Roosevelt and helped the now-seventh-grader transition to Dakota Meadows Middle School.

Mother Heather Lorentz said her son struggled at four different settings in kindergarten and first grade but made significant progress at Roosevelt.

Heather said Seppmann “goes above and beyond” to build strong relationships with her students and their parents and has an innate ability to recognize what tools and interventions her students need.

When Peter got a therapy dog last year he named it "Emily" after his favorite teacher. Emily the teacher and her sons still get together regularly with Peter, Heather and Emily the golden retriever.

This year is Seppmann's first working with secondary students. She teaches social studies and embeds behavioral and social skills and post-secondary planning into her classes. 

The Futures program serves students of all ages with autism spectrum, emotional-behavioral and other disorders. The school relocated last month from a rented space on Navaho Avenue in Mankato to a district facility formerly used for offices on Commerce Drive in North Mankato.

Futures Coordinator Sarah McMonagle said Seppmann has transitioned seamlessly into her new role. Seppmann is a patient teacher who builds strong relationships with students and individualizes her instruction to maximize each student's potential, McMonagle said.