Brekken to retire after four decades of teaching

Photo by Robert Williams
Frazee-Vergas School Board chair Kimberly Antonsen congratulates Judy Brekken on her retirement at the monthly board meeting Monday, May 13.

By Robert Williams


Retirement was the typical double-edge sword for Frazee-Vergas English instructor Judy Brekken. The timing feels right, but making the decision to do so and counting down the last few days in the classroom are not easy.

Photo by Robert Williams
English Teacher Judy Brekken is having an emotional countdown to her retirement at the end of the school year. Brekken has taught in North Dakota and Minnesota schools for four decades.

Brekken is a native of Audubon and a proud Zephyr graduate. She pursued a degree in English Education at Bemidji State University, graduating in 1982.

After leaving Bemidji, she took on a variety of roles for eight years waiting for the right English teaching position.

After college, she moved to western North Dakota with her husband Russ and began her teaching career at Watford City High School, where she applied for an English opening, but did not get it. Instead, Brekken was offered a position through the University of North Dakota’s Tutor in Training program.

Through that program Brekken earned her license for specific learning disabilities.

“I think that my first years working with Special Education students really taught me a lot of patience,” Brekken said. “It gave me a lot of insight into kids that struggled and then going into the regular classroom I could be more understanding of things they were being challenged with.”

She continued teaching in Watford City for the next five years in that discipline. Special Ed students in Watford were highly integrated with the rest of their classmates.

“Most of the time they were in the regular classroom except the content area where they had a disability; I had special reading and writing classes,” said Brekken. “I worked with some teachers to do some modifications of their curriculum to meet the needs of those lower achieving students.”

The couple moved back and Brekken taught part-time and subbed in Audubon through the merger of Lake Park and Audubon in 1990.

Brekken worked as a paraprofessional until an English teaching position opened and she continued her career teaching seventh and eighth grade until moving to Frazee in the Fall of 2015.

The move took some convincing after the youngest of the Brekken’s three children graduated from high school in 2015.

“I decided that maybe I need to pull up my roots and start a new beginning,” Judy said. “My family was very supportive, but it was scary because I was 55-years-old.”

Others questioned why she would move so late in her career.

“People said you’re crazy, but I was like yeah, I just think I need to change things up and I had a very good move,” she said.

The move was aided by a mutual friend who taught in Frazee: Bobbi Blickenstaff.

“She was the department head and we were good friends through church and she was the one who sent me a text saying, hey, we have an opening. Are you interested?” said Brekken.

At the time, Judy was still a bit unsure and busy with graduation planning.

By the beginning of June, another teacher was leaving in Frazee.

“Bobbi said I already know you had Tim’s graduation party, so you can’t use that as an excuse,” Brekken laughed. “I was like…what the heck?”

The change was less daunting as both schools are relatively the same size.

“Kids are the same. It’s small and rural,” Brekken said.

But a challenge came up quickly as besides teaching eighth grade in Frazee, Brekken was also charged with classes of senior English.

“I had been away from that upper level curriculum and I just panicked,” Brekken said.

Blickenstaff contacted Mary Olson to assist Judy.

“We met and have become very close friends and she shared a lot of her curriculum ideas with me just so I had a start,” Brekken said. “I call her kind of my guardian angel, because if it hadn’t been for her I think my first year would have been very challenging.”

Brekken took Olson’s curriculum and made it her own over the following years and concentrated on literature while incorporating some grammar studies into writing assignments.

Teaching was something that Brekken knew she wanted to do since childhood.

“I come from a big family and we used to play school at home,” she said.

She was mentored by a high school teacher that helped push her toward English as a discipline. At BSU, her college English teacher picked up from where Judy’s high school teacher left off.

“She was very influential,” said Brekken.

She found a home in the classroom and spent four decades making her students shine. The feedback from them proved teaching as a profession was the right decision makes leaving a bit difficult.

“I love the teaching part, being in the classroom and presenting lessons—I love that whole interaction with the kids,” said Brekken. “It’s the paperwork part. As you get older it gets harder. The grading and the time. It gets harder and harder.”

As the last day of school nears, each day comes with a new set of emotions.

“Monday, when I changed my countdown number to nine days it got me,” she said.

On the advice of close friends and fellow teachers, including Student Support Coordinator Jerry Hanson in Frazee, who all told Judy to have something planned for that first day of next school year, Brekken has a road trip planned for September.

“I can see myself; even though I’m excited and I feel ready, I think it’s going to be a bit heartbreaking that first day of school,” said Brekken. 

Judy is not set on a dead stop when it comes to teaching. She has already decided that she will substitute.

“Whenever I want to and probably for a couple years because my husband is going to work a couple more years,” she said.

Plans for their mutual retirement are a little bit of traveling and spending time with their three kids and five grandchildren who all live nearby regionally.

“I’m sure there will be a few more grandkids,” she said.

However, there will still linger many memories of her important interactions with students.

“I had a couple of really tough years here with kids and the whole COVID thing, but I just see some really good things happening with kids,” said Brekken. “They just kind of tug at your heartstrings, even the kids that drive you nuts. At the end of the day, they’re humans too and they have wants and needs just like I do. I think that’s the thing, the main thing that I will miss the most. Making those connections with kids and trying to make education and English class fun.”