Former farm girl finishes long career at country school
Arla Railsback loves Houlton Elementary and will find it difficult to say good-bye when she retires at the end of this school year.
For most of her almost 34 years in the classroom, she has taught at Hudson's "country school" and loved it. Some of her affinity for the rural life comes from her upbringing as a farm girl raised near Deer Park. In addition to her connection with nature, she also got her connection to education from her mother and grandmother, who were also teachers.
"This is a great community. That's what the school and the families who attend here are - their own country community complete with birds and bees and cows right across the street with a tractor heading down the road. You can't get much closer to nature and natural things than here."
Railsback said that while "kids are kids" wherever, she does believe Houlton is a "nice, special place."
"The kids and their families are open-minded and kind. There is just a kind of country, neighborly feeling that everyone feels is very important."
Railsback said she has always wanted to be a teacher, despite the fact that an aptitude test in high school said she should be an interior designer. She graduated from Amery High School and UW-River Falls. Over the years she has seen lots of changes in education, especially in the way it is delivered.
"But even though technology has added some important things to education, there is nothing like the look of discovery in a child's eyes when they are handling a crayfish or seeing seeds pop and turn into bean plants. There just isn't a feeling to compare to that on a computer or television screen. Kids are in constant state of discovery if we are doing things right, and that is just the best experience ever."
Railsback's favorite subject to teach is science and she fears that too much technology, especially in the form of computer games and entertainment, has dulled children's imaginations rather than stimulate them.
"There are fewer and fewer of our students going into the sciences, and I wonder if that doesn't have something to do with it. They don't seem to have that inventive spirit or that 'wow' factor when they see something wonderful happen and understand why ... Computers can't teach you how to invent or discover things."
Railsback said she understands the emphasis on reading and math in grade school but says science has an equally important role for every student, whether they become scientists or not.
"First off, kids love it at this age and so much of what they learn is about the natural world around them, knowledge they will carry with them throughout life."
As she looks back on her years in the classroom, she says experience has been her best teacher. "Being organized helps a lot, and over the years you get better and better at balancing things, setting priorities and goals, but always knowing that on any given day you may have to change that plan to adjust to what your students need. That doesn't always fit a plan. If something has to be left for another day, well, then it does. The most important thing is to do what your students need."
And to do that well, Railsback said classes need to be manageable. "Class size has the greatest impact on student learning, the smaller the better. I've seen it firsthand. With a class of 30, you just can't get around to everyone every day or notice when someone isn't getting the idea. With half that number you can accomplish so much more."
And Railsback said it isn't just about concepts and knowledge but also about self-esteem and confidence. "In a smaller class, students have more of an opportunity to speak, share their ideas, give their opinion. All of this is critical to their confidence and self-concept. And helping them develop that is part of our job as well."
In addition to exposure to good literature, math and science, Railsback adds in a healthy dose of current events and culture.
"We do a lot of classroom discussion where they like to share their opinions. And if you have an opinion, you have to support it. I grew up in a family where we discussed everything at the dinner table. I think it is one of the things that helped shape me into a confident person who could think for herself. As teachers, we want that for our students. It is one of the things that will sustain them over the long haul."
Her fondest memories as a teacher aren't so much her own but those of students who return and let her know she made an impact in their lives. A father drove up to the school and asked the janitor if Railsback still taught there. He said she was his daughter's favorite teacher and now the girl was in medical school. Another student getting ready to graduate brought back the violet she planted when she was in Railsback's class.
"When you realize you've made an impact on them - that's the best."
The mother of two grown daughters, Railsback already has a jump start on her future outside of Houlton Elementary. She will be moving to the Spooner area to join husband David, who operates an excavation business there. She will continue to quilt with an emphasis on a new technique called quilt painting, and she has plans to open a deli and gelato shop along Hwy. 53 in Trego. In the winters she will travel to the family's home in the Florida Keys.
When asked if she had any advice for students, parents and new teachers, she said this. She urged children to be open-minded and to follow their hearts. "You can do anything you want to with the rest of your life. I've seen it. Some go on to be doctors or something else, some drop out of school and find another path. It is really up to you."
She urges parents to slow down. "It really isn't important to be at every game or practice or event. Sometimes it is more important to just sit down together at dinner and talk."
For teachers, her advice is much the same as for her students. "They should follow their hearts too. Probably the way you think it should be taught is the right way. You know it because it works. With experience comes confidence."
And one more thing - this time to the School Board and the powers that be: Keep those class sizes small.