After five years of clean scans, Kelly Klein thought her cancer was gone.
But in June, the kindergarten teacher at Falcon Heights Elementary School learned her ovarian cancer was back, and it was terminal.
Klein, 54, of Stacy, Minn., has taught at the school for 32 years, the past 12 at the kindergarten level. She knew she didn’t want to give that up.
“Teaching kindergarten is like going to Disney World,” she said. “Every day is something special. They’re just so excited about everything. We make each lesson theatrical and fun and gimmicky, and they love it. They absolutely love it.”
Klein reached out to her boss, Beth Behnke, the principal at Falcon Heights Elementary, and asked if she could keep teaching — even during her monthly chemotherapy treatments at M Heath Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, Minn.
“She came to me during the summer, before school started, and said, ‘Please don’t make me take a (medical) leave,” Behnke said. “I said, ‘Of course not. We’ll figure it out together.’ ”
Klein was given this year’s “virtual” kindergarten class — taught via Zoom. Parents were notified that their children might see nurses and other medical staff in the background on the days that Klein teaches from the hospital, and no one raised a concern, Behnke said.
“I don’t think she has missed one day of work since she started,” Behnke said. “That’s the silver lining of distance learning.”
Teaching through COVID and chemotherapy has been “a gift, an absolute gift,” Klein said. “They’re the best medicine I could ask for.”
Klein said she has discussed her diagnosis with her students — at a level they can understand.
“They just know that I have cancer,” she said. “They know that I go to ‘the doctor’s house’ to get medicine every month to help me get better.”
On her chemo days, Klein listens to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” in the car on her drive to the hospital, she said. Her 18 students get to hear it on those days, too, when it’s time for a dance break.
“They know that’s my pump-me-up song to go to the doctor’s house, so we dance to that each month on Go Noodle,” she said, referring to the movement-based games app.
Medical staff and fellow chemotherapy patients have gotten a kick out of overhearing kindergarten lessons, listening to books at storytime and watching science experiments, she said. “They love it,” she said. “They get to hear my sing-song voice and all the little cheers that I do.”
Klein, who was featured last month on “Boyd Huppert’s Land of 10,000 Stories” on KARE-11, will be a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Tuesday. Appearing on her favorite show, which was pre-recorded, was nerve-wracking, she said.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I’ve never been so nervous in my entire life. I’m a huge Ellen fan. I have been taping Ellen for years. I’ve tried to get tickets for years and could never get them.”
Klein will receive her seventh round of chemotherapy next week. She said Friday that she is just starting to lose her hair. “I got my hair cut really short, so it wouldn’t be as traumatic,” she said. “The first time I lost it, it was really long.”
She hasn’t yet told her kindergartners that she will eventually lose her hair. “Five-year-olds worry,” she said. “When you’re bald, it’s scary. I haven’t wanted to say anything until it’s really noticeable, and so far, it hasn’t been.”
She hopes her students will remember their time with her.
“What I hope they get from this is that people with cancer can also thrive and be silly and happy and playful and fun and contribute,” she said. “I want them to see that cancer isn’t a death sentence.”
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