By Clay Schuldt
As the school year comes to a close early childhood educator Dianne Stevens is preparing her room for the long summer without children. However, since this is Stevens’ last year teaching, the process has taken longer.
“I’ve been working on it all year long,” Stevens said. “With 35 years of stuff it has taken me all year to dig through the cupboards and remember what my stuff is and what isn’t and what I just want to donate to the school.”
Stevens is able to trace the start of her teaching career back to time spent student teaching. Originally from Silver Bay, north of Duluth, Stevens attended college at Bemidji State University earning a degree in elementary and early childhood education. “I knew I wanted to work with children and early childhood was a brand new up-and-coming field,” Stevens explained. “We were the first class at Bemidji that needed to student teach at a preschool. I never dreamed that is what I would be teaching all these years – and I absolutely loved it.”
Stevens said she thoroughly enjoyed being a student’s first teacher and opening their eyes to the world around them.
Stevens came down to Caledonia when her husband received his first teaching position in the area. The couple wanted to live in a small town and decided to stay in Caledonia.
For the last 16 years Stevens has taught preschool age kids as part of the public school’s Community Education Program, but before that she held preschool classes out of the United Methodist Church for 19 years. Eventually the public school created a preschool program and Stevens was hired to teach the class and brought a steady pool of registered students with her.
“You have to be flexible,” Stevens explained. In the early years of the early childhood education program the location of the preschool classroom frequently changed. “We started out in the old Bissen Building and then we were at the old school, then the Ace Building, back to the old school and then down here.” The current early childhood classrooms are located in the elementary school building.
Now in a permanent location, Stevens’ classroom has begun cooperating with other educational programs in the community. Two years ago Head Start began collaborating with the Early Childhood Program at Caledonia Elementary. Early childhood special education is also part of the program. “All of us are inclusive with each other and we team teach, which is wonderful.”
One of the challenges of teaching preschool is keeping children focused. “You need to change what you do about every 15 minutes because they can’t sit very long.” One of the tricks is of the trade is to turn playtime into learning time. Stevens points to a sensory table full of water.
“They just think they are playing with water, but when you are dumping and filling containers, that’s a science and a math activity. Every center I have set up is a learning activity, but they just call it playing.” In Stevens’ opinion the best learning is done through playing.
In over 35 years of teaching Stevens has seen many changes in the education system but none as major as the advances in computers. “When I started out we had a typewriter and I had a big stack of resource books. They young teachers now get their themes off the computers. I didn’t have that resource when I first started.”
Today the preschool classroom actually contains specialized computers designed for use by the youngest children. Stevens has two of these computers in her room and another six are in the kindergarten room. Even at age five most of these children reach an astounding level of computer literacy. Stevens explained that any problem she has with the computer they usually know how to fix it.
There are some things in a preschool that the computer revolution could never replace. “You have to have blocks,” Steven emphasized. Any building block based toy is indispensable to a preschool educator. Stevens highlighted a unit her class did on farms, and the blocks were used by the kids to build fences.
“We made rectangles, we made squares, we made ovals; they just think they are playing but it just stretches their imagination a little bit.”
Of course another important staple of preschool education is story time. “That is my favorite. I love reading stories and using different voices.”
Story time is the perfect opportunity to teach children critical thinking. Stevens might hold up a copy of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” or “The Cat in the Hat” and simply ask the students: “What do you think this is about?”
Stevens has countless numbers of personal stories about the children she has taught over the years. Recently, after one preschool program, one child invited her to sleep over, which for preschoolers is the most prestigious of invites. Stevens considered it one of the cutest and sweetest moments in memory, saying. “That was the greatest gift of all to be asked.”
Stevens’ decision to retire from teaching did not come about for any single reason, though she acknowledges age is a factor, joking that “Sitting on the floor and bending over in these little chairs, my body parts are wearing out.”
Family also influenced her decision to retire. “We want to spend time with them and that’s the real motivator.”
Her family, including children and grandchildren, are scatter across the country. One of the first activities on Stevens’ to do list is to travel with the family, meeting for a week of camping in the Great Smokey Mountains. This will be the first time in three years her whole family has been together.
Stevens admits it will be difficult to leave as she has grown very attached to the students. “They are so sweet and lovable. You have to find the good in everyone, and that’s the joy of working with these little ones because they are so trusting and lovable so you reciprocate.”
At the time of her retirement Mrs. Stevens could truly be called a second generation teacher. Twenty-two of the children in her class this year alone were the children of former students. Over the years Stevens has been the first teacher for hundreds of children, many of whom are still in the Caledonia community today… including this writer.
By Clay Schuldt
The Caledonia Argus
“Forty years is a long time,” said St. John’s teacher Barb Jacobson. “I don’t know when that happened.”
After teaching at St. John’s for 40 years, Barb Jacobson will be retiring at the end of this school year. She began in 1972 and took one year off when her oldest daughter was born. With her last day of teaching a month away, Jacobson has begun to look back on her 40 years of teaching and the hundreds of students she affected over the years.
For Jacobson, the decision to become a teacher was relatively easy.
“I had some people who encouraged me and thought I would be a good teacher, and I thought I would try it out.” After four decades of teaching Jacobson admits the people who encouraged her were correct.
“I liked the kids. I always enjoyed seeing the light bulb go on, when you are working on something and all of sudden the light bulb goes on and they got it. It’s just very rewarding to see that.”
Originally from Marshfield, Wis., Jacobson attended Wisconsin Luther College in Milwaukee for two years and then Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm and graduated from there in 1972. Jacobson was fortunate to begin her teaching career at St. John’s, and Caledonia quickly became her new home.
In the early 1970s, St. John’s was a much different building. Jacobson’s classroom was once at the end of the school building.
“There were only four classrooms and an office back then,” Jacobson explained. Later a gym and lunchroom were added. Prior to the additions, everything, including lunch, was done in the classroom.
One of the more practical difficulties of leaving St. John’s after 40 years is cleaning out her classroom. Jacobson has taught in the same room her entire career and has filled the room with decades’ worth of materials, as she kept of record of all the students she had taught.
Jacobson has taught third and fourth grade her entire career, saying, “It’s a good age. They know how to do things. They know enough to keep busy and yet they are eager to learn.”
As the only third- and fourth-grade teacher in the school, Jacobson would teach each student that went through St. John’s for a total of two years.
Teaching two grades at the same time may seem difficult, but Jacobson believes the method works. The younger students have the benefit of the older grade’s experience, and the older students are able to review things they previously learned. In addition, it means that each student retains the same teacher for two years. “When they enter fourth grade, I already know them, and that is a benefit.”
Unfortunately, as this is her last year, this year’s third graders will not be taught by Jacobson in fourth grade. Jacobson admits that some of the third graders feel “cheated” by this turn of events.
When asked about the most challenging aspect of teaching Jacobson explains it was keeping the students’ attention.
“They are bombarded so much with fast moving things on the Internet and TV that to keep their attention isn’t always an easy thing.”
Jacobson has seen many changes in St. John’s over the years, but that has been nothing compared to the advances in technology.
“It’s always been changing, but it’s just changing as such a fast rate now, it makes it hard to keep up.” Still, Jacobson admits much of the technology has been helpful.
“I think the most wonderful thing was when we went from the old mimeograph machines to a copy machine,” she said. The mimeograph was the predecessor to the copier, which was a complicated machine to say the least. Years later Jacobson is still haunted by the memories of the work needed to make a single copy and the terrible smell of the fluid from the mimeograph drum. While the modern-day copiers are not always perfect, Jacobson would gladly deal with a paper jam than ever deal with a mimeograph ever again.
Another surreal experience of a long teaching career is teaching the children of former students.
“I’ve had a lot of second-generation students,” Jacobson said. While she had not taught any third-generation students, recently Jacobson has had the privilege of teaching her own grandchild, which has led to the nickname “Grandma Jacobson” at the school.
“They call me Mrs. Jacobson in class but every once and while they slip up.”
For Jacobson, retirement will be unusual. Besides her 40 years spent as a teacher, Jacobson had years of time spent in school as a student herself.
“I’ve been in school my whole life except for five years,” she pointed out.
In retirement Jacobson plans to do some traveling and volunteer her time, though most of her time will be dedicated to taking care of her family and household. Still Jacobson is confident she will return to St. John’s as a substitute on occasion.
The decision to retire was not an easy decision for Jacobson, and the idea is bitter sweet.
“I am going to miss the kids, I am going to miss the staff, and I’ll miss being busy, but I won’t miss being too busy.”