When Holly (Pearson) Dannecker MLC ’09 earned her MS-Education from MLC this spring, it was the culmination of an interesting story—a story with a few surprising twists.

The first twist took place before Dannecker even began grad school. Although she started her ministry as an elementary teacher, she is now a full-time special education teacher. Her assignment call was to St. John-Sparta, Wisconsin, where she taught in several classrooms, K-4, over the course of a decade, and helped start the early childhood center (now called Bright Beginnings). But she had a heart for the children with special needs, so she began serving part-time as St. John’s extended learning director. In 2019, she accepted a call to St. Mark-Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she taught grade 4 and served as director of Student Services. This year, she began a ministry at Mount Olive-Appleton, Wisconsin, as full-time director of Student Services

What does she do as a director of Student Services? Dannecker says the overarching goal is “to make sure all children have equitable access to tools that help them thrive in a learning environment.” To accomplish that, she supports and educates classroom teachers, works collaboratively with the public school district, communicates with parents, and instructs children with exceptional needs.

Stepping into the role of special ed teacher led Dannecker to realize how much she needed to learn. “I recognized that I still didn’t know much about best practices, how to identify credible research, and good leadership traits,” she said.

She took a few graduate courses at other colleges, but then she enrolled in MLC’s program.

“I chose MLC for my graduate program because I felt the quality was better than other institutions I attended. Alternative programs also charged much more tuition, yet I often thought I was teaching myself, with no apparent purpose behind the assignments.”

The second twist in this story occurred when Dannecker chose her emphasis. Of MLC’s four emphases—Instruction, Educational Technology, Special Ed, and Leadership—we would suppose she would have chosen Special Ed, but she did not. Instead, she opted for the Leadership emphasis. “While I teach special education,” she says, “my most important task is to train educators to implement inclusive practices successfully. My goals were to become a better communicator with groups of people and to learn how to navigate the blessings and challenges of implementing change within a school. Credentials in special education and leadership play a vital role in my mission.”

She says that all the leadership courses were “astoundingly helpful.” But one course was especially valuable: Educational Leadership taught by Dr. Daniel Johnson. That course, she says, “changed how I will approach things in my ministry forever.”

The third twist in this story is something that surprised Dannecker herself. “I was a bit naïve when I first enrolled in graduate studies, since I expected it to imitate my undergraduate experience. For example, I anticipated studying material that may not be relevant when I’m in the classroom or working in groups with one or more disengaged members.”

What she found, though, was that graduate studies was quite different—in positive ways.

“I didn’t encounter irrelevant activities, and most often the activities were astoundingly timely in my stage of ministry. For instance, one exercise required our groups to evaluate credible vs. non-credible research. At the same time, I was working with an institution trying to discredit the data our school had collected to help a family through a challenging situation. Thanks to what I learned in my classes the week before, I could justify our data as valid and not be discredited.”

And as for those group projects, she was also pleasantly surprised. “I always experienced professional group members who worked hard and offered valuable insight. I was excited to meet some of them on graduation day.”

But the growth Dannecker experienced was not only professional. It was spiritual too. “The hidden gem not written in each MLC course description is how much ministerial encouragement you will receive from your instructors.” And the spiritual encouragement comes from fellow grad students too: “When someone would share a traumatic and devastating event in their ministry, the prayers and compassionate responses offered by our instructors and classmates are something that I will never forget. Sometimes we feel like Elijah—‘the only one left’—but then God brings us together and reminds us we are still building his kingdom with many others.”

The fourth twist in this journey is the level of respect Dannecker now receives in her local special education community. Having her special education license and her master’s degree in leadership has given her much more credibility with the public school system.

“There was a time,” she says, “when I wasn’t even allowed into meetings because I didn’t have the proper credentials. But now I am at the table at every meeting about students’ needs. Now I can ensure that all the students at our Lutheran school have access to the services they are entitled to. And that means that every student—even those with special needs—can attend our Lutheran school.”

That, essentially, is Holly Dannecker’s mission: “Having a Student Services program at our Lutheran school ensures equitable access to Christian education for every student . . . and special education for every student who needs it.”

Dannecker’s finals words are not a surprise at all. She encourages other teachers considering a graduate program to go for it—at MLC!

“First,” she says, “I want to commend the WELS churches and schools who are helping pay for coursework. For most called workers, we could not pursue higher education without the financial support of our congregations. Thank you for your offering of love.

“Second, if you are reading this and debating whether to enroll, consider the blessings. Here are some:

  • If you are licensed, your courses are credited to your clock hour count.
  • If you are licensed in Wisconsin, your courses meet criteria towards your Lifetime License.
  • A great deal of your work centers around group collaboration and experience. Anyone who loves to teach and enjoys learning will do well in these courses.
  • The work is relevant. When it doesn’t appear relevant, your instructors help you recognize connections to your situation.
  • Scripture reminds us that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. I have experienced many blessings from the work I put into this program.”

Meet Max!

We can’t leave the story of Dannecker’s ministry without introducing you to Max the therapy dog. Dannecker began training Max when she was serving in Sparta. Now, he’s certified through Living Creatures Ministry as a school therapy dog. He was onsite regularly at St. Mark in Green Bay, and he will soon be offering his special gifts at Mount Olive.

“Max has been a great catalyst for compassion ministry,” Dannecker says. “When Max is in the classroom, a child who has experienced severe trauma will open up. The world can sometimes be very bad, and some children have been deeply hurt. They won’t open up to adults, because they don’t trust us. But they will talk to Max.

“There are places in people’s hearts that humans can’t touch,” she adds. “But a therapy dog like Max can make all the difference.”

About Holly Dannecker: “I have a husband, Jordan, and two daughters, Paige (10) and Evangeline (8), and two golden retrievers, Max and Tug. I love being outside with my girls and spending time at our family cabin in northern Minnesota. What you might never guess about me is that I have a knack for running into famous people. For example, my first weekend in Green Bay I spent 20 minutes sheltering from rain next to Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson and his family at the zoo.”