WASHINGTON (AP) _ As the 1996 Teacher of the Year, Mary Beth Blegen has reached the pinnacle of her teaching career. The low point was in the early 1980s when she assigned her high school students to write a paper about fate.

``They didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know what I wanted and so what I got wasn't any good,'' said Ms. Blegen, who teaches at Worthington High School in southwestern Minnesota. ``It was just all mush.''

It was then that Ms. Blegen challenged herself to better communicate with her students. She asks her students questions and listens to their answers. She listens to their questions but gives them few answers.

``I ask myself daily just what it is that kids should take away from my classroom,'' she says. ``I ask them to reflect on what they are learning and why they are learning.''

It's part of a teaching philosophy that will lead her to the White House on Tuesday to receive a crystal apple and meet with President Clinton.

Ms. Blegen plans to give Clinton 90 letters her students have written him, expressing their thoughts on such subjects as abortion, family life, sports and education. An 18-year-old student tells the president her views on teaching.

``We need more teachers who care. We need teachers who don't come to school every day just to get their paycheck,'' she writes. ``We need action to remove bad teachers from the school systems, and to encourage good teachers to stay teaching.''

Be it Vietnam or Picasso, Ms. Blegen tries to help students believe they have valuable thoughts to express and write. That helps them learn about themselves and begin their own walk through life, she says.

Ms. Blegen, 52, was born in Chamberlain, S.D., and graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1965. She started teaching in January 1966. She did substitute work for several years while raising three children, then resumed teaching full time at Worthington High School more than 15 years ago. She teaches history, literature, writing and humanities.

As Teacher of the Year, Ms. Blegen will leave her classroom for a year to be a spokeswoman for education. She hopes to persuade more teachers to improve their listening skills to better connect with their students.

A committee representing 14 education organizations selected Ms. Blegen from a pool of 54 teachers of the year in the states ans U.S. territories. The Teacher of the Year program, in its 45th year, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.