Of the 50 pageant queens who flew into Cancún to have their pictures taken before competing to become the next Miss USA, only one was an educator. Or an Idahoan.
Katarina Schweitzer has high heeled her way across pageant stages for 13 years, but she’s spent even more time in classrooms between completing a master’s degree and teaching special education in Nampa. In 27 years, she’s led workshops to connect veterans with resources for PTSD, participated in a sorority, sung in musical theatre productions, and just over a year ago, was crowned Miss Idaho USA.
But her main gig is teaching sixth through 12th graders at Gem Prep: Nampa, a charter school. In a Miss USA field chock-full of health care workers and lawyers, her profession sets her apart.
“I am not only representing Idaho. I’m representing educators,” Schweitzer told EdNews this month.
A first-generation college student and military brat, Schweitzer moved to the Treasure Valley from her hometown of San Diego to attend Boise State University. She’d later go on to get two degrees at BSU, but Schweitzer’s football fandom — not a day-one dream of teaching — sparked her early interest in the school.
“They pull you out on that blue field and you just fall in love,” she said.
Her parents later followed. Schweitzer’s father capped a career in the U.S. Navy spanning more than 30 years and began work for a construction company in Boise, revamping historic North End homes. Her mother took a job at the Idaho Center after finishing a career as a school intervention specialist, working one-on-one with students who had fallen behind in reading and other areas.
Her mother’s role in education factored into Schweitzer’s career choice, convincing her that “an educator is not only an educator. They’re a mentor. They’re a person that is influencing and inspiring the younger generation.”
So did Schweitzer’s “love” for working with children — a word she uses often to describe teaching — and a drive to pursue higher education as the first in her family to do so.
That pursuit changed direction numerous times. She switched from studying kinesiology to a pre-dental program to a health sciences route before graduating with a communications degree. Schweitzer originally applied for graduate school in speech pathology before landing in a master’s program in early childhood and special education, where she’d earn a certificate in infant and toddler mental health.
She’s in her third year teaching special education, and her second at Gem Prep. There, her teaching philosophy and passion for working with students with disabilities have converged on a shared focal point: heightening students’ self-worth.
“Most of the students that you interact with feel within themselves they are not the same as everyone else, (that) they can’t do the things that other students can do. And I wanted to be that change. I wanted to tell them that, ‘Yes, they are unique, but disability does not mean that they are different. It just means that they are doing something in their own way,”’ Schweitzer said.
To show students their wide range of post-high school prospects, Schweitzer invites guests from different career fields to speak to her class each month. She assigns weekly reflections, and has students copy some version of the same mantra at the end of every paper they write: “I am becoming the best version of myself.”
After passing off her 2021 Miss Idaho USA crown to her successor weeks ago, Schweitzer, too, is reminding herself that she’s on the way to self-betterment. On top of the intense workout routine she follows, the “crazy” prep she’s doing before taking the Miss USA stage in Tulsa, Okla., over Thanksgiving weekend includes interview practice and reminding herself that “you’re worthy” of the opportunity.
She’s had to dig deep for self-confidence before. Her first year teaching, spent with elementary school students in Mountain Home, was the first school year affected by the pandemic. With only months of experience, the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and caused Schweitzer’s line of communication with some students — especially those whose parents couldn’t help them log onto computers — to go dark.
“I felt like I was in over my head,” she said. “But we got through it.”
Things are better now. Her classes are back in-person full time, an arrangement she believes special education students especially benefit from. And Schweitzer is settled in Idaho, too, enjoying the Treasure Valley’s “big-town feel in a smaller setting” with no plans of returning to San Diego.