A role model guided Lori Blehm to pursue a career in education, one that has spanned three decades.
Blehm has taught kindergarten at Lincoln Heights for the past 35 years. She will retire in three weeks and said she is questioning her departure from the profession because she enjoys connecting with her students.
As a young girl, Blehm grew up in Scottsbluff where she attended Sunflower Country School. The school was closed two years after she graduated in 1974. Blehm continued her education to pursue a teaching career as she sought to follow in her aunt Jane’s footsteps.
“My aunt Jane was a teacher and I just idolized her,” Blehm said. “I just thought it was amazing all of the things she could do and how she made learning so much fun for me.”
Her teachers also influenced Blehm’s decision to become a teacher as they not only taught her curriculum, but also cared for her.
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“I just wanted to do that for other people,” she said.
Nebraska Western, now called Western Nebraska Community College, offered a two-year program in education. Following the completion of those credits, Blehm went to Chadron State College where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education.
Blehm navigated the winding roads between Scottsbluff and Chadron during the weekdays to attend her classes and still be home with her family.
“In those days, they didn’t have an adjunct program like they have today,” she said. “I was married and had kids, so I drove every day to Chadron and I only stayed on campus for my professional eight weeks of student teaching.”
Blehm sat on a committee to start the adjunct program so the professors would travel to meet with future students pursuing a teaching degree.
She then earned her master’s degree in elementary education from CSC in 1994.
“I wanted to be a teacher and if that’s what I had to do, that’s what I did,” she said.
Her first teaching job was with Gering Public Schools for one year during the 1978-79 school year. Blehm then took a break from teaching to raise her son until he was 18 months old.
She then taught kindergarten at Lake Alice Country School north of town. At the end of the school year, she became pregnant with her daughter and took a four-year hiatus from teaching.
As her children entered the public school system, Blehm decided to go back to school in 1986. She has worked for Scottsbluff Public Schools as the kindergarten teacher at Lincoln Heights Elementary School for the past 35 years.
“The kids make every year different,” she said. “That’s why it’s the best job in the world.”
At the age of 47, Blehm’s husband died. As she navigated raising her family as a single parent, she said she was glad she earned her degrees to be able to continue to support her family’s needs.
During her time in education, she said her students have taught her patience, not to assume anything, how to accept them no matter where they are and the importance of relationships with her students.
“I’m a hugger and with COVID, that’s been really hard,” Blehm said.
Being a teacher who enjoys working hands-on with her students, the pandemic has posed a challenge.
“We have to be socially distanced and they have to wear masks, so I don’t get to see their smiles,” she said. “When we’re learning letter sounds, you can’t see their mouths making those sounds, so you don’t know if they’re making them correctly or not.”
Blehm also has an open door policy where she welcomes parents into the classroom, but the pandemic has limited such opportunities.
Still, her passion for education is fueled by her students’ interests to learn new concepts and the awe they experience daily.
“They’re like little sponges and so excited about learning,” Blehm said. “Making things hands-on so they can learn using all five senses is important to me and that things are developmentally appropriate for them to be doing.”
She said the best part about teaching kindergarten is witnessing students have those “ah-ha moments” learning how to read.
“When they finally figure out how to read, it gives me goosebumps and chills,” she said. “That’s one of the rewarding parts is when you see the firsts educationally that parents don’t get to see, which is especially unique in kindergarten.”
As she prepares to close out her tenure at Lincoln Heights, Blehm has enjoyed her time connecting with her students and will miss the profession.
“Teaching isn’t a work of art,” she said. “Teaching is a work from the heart.”