Career spans many changes in the field

Photo by Robert Williams
Ann Zitzow is completing her 36th year in Special Education, 28 of which have been spent at both the elementary and high school in the Frazee-Vergas School District.

By Robert Williams


Ann Zitzow is retiring in three weeks after teaching Special Education for nearly four decades. She is wrapping up her 36th year teaching career, her 28th in the Frazee-Vergas School District.

Zitzow is a native of the small town of Westport, S.D., and graduated from Frederick High School in a Class of 30 kids, amazingly split 15 girls and 15 boys. Her hometown and school had a lot to do with pursuing a career in her field. 

She was a sprinter on the high school track team and earned the distinction of going to state track in four events for six years and ran for three years in college.

“I knew during my junior year of high school that I wanted to go into special ed,” Zitzow said. “There were several people in our class that needed help with stuff and we didn’t have a Special Ed department and I thought there’s a need and I’m interested in that.”

Zitzow graduated from Moorhead State University at a time when the degree was Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR), then changed to just MR and a host of different acronyms since.

“My degree that I have gotten has changed at least six times since,” she said.

The current form is Developmentally Cognitively Disabled (DCD).

“That used to be mentally retarded, but that’s not a very politically correct term and I hate that term so now it’s DCD, but the IQs of the kids have always stayed the same; it’s terminology,” Zitzow said.

Her first job out of college was a two-year stint in Sebeka, which was cut short by budget cuts. She then moved to Goodhue for three years. Zitzow left after the health of her parents began to decline and she took a position at MACCRAY to be slightly closer to home. 

Zitzow would come back to the area to visit a friend in Sebeka and a chance meeting made her early life travels end in Frazee when she met and later married her husband Kent Zitzow of Perham.

“I always tell my kids we were both desperate, but he doesn’t agree with that,” Zitzow laughed.

“He’s a very lucky man,” Paraprofessional Sandy Schultz chimed in to more laughter.

Besides Schultz, Zitzow has worked with a lengthy list of paras that include Tracey Buhl, Sandy Green, Jessica McLaughlin, Shelley Day, Karen Hill, Kathleen Tappe and Maegan Kelsey.

“They do fantastic work; they are the backbone of the Special Ed department and they don’t get the recognition or the pay they deserve,” Zitzow said.

Zitzow began working in the Frazee-Vergas District half-time at the elementary school during the fall of 1996 and she transitioned to the high school along with a big group of special education students.

“They needed more help,” she said.

Over the years there have been a multitude of changes in the field but none greater for Zitzow than student integration into the regular classroom. Students of the 1980s on back will likely not recall many special ed students in their classrooms but over time that has significantly changed for the betterment of all students.

“The amount of time that kids go into the classroom, I try to keep as high as possible and coming to me the least amount as possible because I want them to be in contact with peers and peers to see how kids with a handicap function,” she said. “There was a huge, huge shift to mainstream trying to have them in a science class and modifying the work down to what they can do themselves.”

A lot of that transition came down from the State and special ed instructors are monitored to see how much time kids are in special ed that is measured in three gradient levels.

“They learn from their regular classroom peers and their regular peers learn from them; there are different learning styles for everybody and the teachers have to figure out different learning styles for everybody too,” said Zitzow. “Not everybody is going to learn the same way.”

Another big change in the field has been technology.

“For helping kids learn and paperwork and there is a ton of paperwork in special ed,” she said.

The students have their own technology with personal Chromebooks, but individuality dictates how each student learns like in any other classroom.

Zitzow’s time in Frazee has spanned from when Superintendent Terry Karger was then Principal Karger and she has witnessed how population in the district and in the school can be the root cause of budget cuts. In her final year, she was pleased to hear Karger announce there would be no employee cuts this school year, something that puts the Frazee-Vergas School District in a unique position compared to nearby districts like Perham-Dent, which has already begun eliminating positions.

“The problem has been budget cuts really limit electives that kids are able to take and that would be the classes that special ed kids could benefit from going into—some electives that aren’t there anymore and that’s hard for a teacher to see those electives go away,” said Zitzow.

Zitzow is finishing her career with a positive outlook for the future of the district and a positive reflection on her work and the people with whom she worked alongside.

“The majority of the people who work here are very positive people,” she said.

That was no more apparent then when Zitzow was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2020 at the end of COVID, while students were still attending school remotely.

She eventually had a double mastectomy and dealt with complications after surgery. 

Zitzow counted on her paras to keep her classroom going, all the while coming to school on weekends to complete lesson plans.

“The people that supported me through my cancer journey were great, fantastic, very positive and willing to help out,” she said.

Zitzow is retiring as one of the last teachers eligible for the Rule of 90. Vested teachers are eligible for an unreduced retirement benefit if their age and years of service total 90 or more. For example, a 60-year-old with 30 years of service would qualify. Zitzow was first hired in June of 1988. Rule of 90 disappeared in January of 1989.

Post-retirement plans are up in the air, other than an annual road trip with her paras. 

“I’ve never really worked over the summer; I’ve always made sure and planned it that I have money to go through the summer so I don’t have to work,” said Zitzow. “I think it will hit me in August when I don’t go to the back to school workshop. That’s when it will hit me.”

The only other plans are visiting her children, which is part of her going away teacher tip for parents. 

“Seriously, If I could tell any parent a teaching tip: read to your kids,” Zitzow said. “Start reading to your kids the day they come home. I was reading to my kids when they were in the womb and both of them are readers.”

Kent and Ann have a daughter Ashley, a Geneticist in Madison, Wisconsin, and Daniel, an Architect in West Fargo.