Heikkila recalls what she's learned, taught for 29 years
Marie Heikkila will retire at the end of this school year after 29 years in the Hudson School District. And while a lot has changed in every discipline during that time, the changes in her field, world studies, have probably been the most dramatic.
Heikkila has taught sixth-grade world studies for most of her career. She joined the middle school staff when the school was still housed where Willow River Elementary is today.
"I have always liked sixth grade and gotten a great deal of satisfaction from teaching that age. They come in ready for something new. They're growing up and there's an excitement they bring with them."
Heikkila usually begins every year with some geography. The subject that many adults may recall as a little dry has been anything but in recent years, according to Heikkila. She uses the time to not only teach students the names of countries, new and old, and where they are, but also something about their culture.
"The U.S. is a great country. We can all agree on that but it is important to teach students about the rest of the world - where kids like them think and where they live is the best place to be. It's the first step in teaching them about tolerance."
In Heikkila's experience, her job as a middle school teacher is as much about helping her students develop their character and their place in the world as it is about learning the globe.
"It's important to make that connection that opens their minds to just how big the world around them is. And Hudson is becoming more diverse every day. It's not just about students who live in other parts of the world but students who sit in the same classrooms with each other. There are kids here from all over the world and from a lot of different backgrounds. If you can make that personal connection between who they are and other kids their age around the world, it makes it more real for them, and that leads to understanding."
Heikkila said sixth-grade students are intuitive and respond best when they are approached with equal portions of fairness, fun and respect. "They deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. If they sense you doing that, they hopefully will learn to do it themselves. And when it doesn't work out the way we planned, that's when a sense of humor can come in handy. A sense of humor can go a long way for both kids and teachers."
Heikkila said while today's kids are exposed to much more in the culture, both good and bad, they aren't necessarily any better equipped to handle what they see. She is a big proponent of giving kids the luxury of time to figure things out.
"It is great for kids to be involved in things after and outside of school but I think being involved in too many things can create problems. Kids need time just to be kids. A little couch potato time isn't necessarily a bad thing. That's the time when kids talk and ask questions. They need time to just hang out where there is no pressure to perform by either peers or adults."
Heikkila said peer pressure continues to be a major component in her students' lives. "I think kids feel that pressure far more than the adults in their lives realize, and giving kids a chance to have time without that is important to their development."
Heikkila said teachers are called on now more than ever to deal not only with student's academic progress but also their emotional and social needs.
"There is a lot of child psychology involved in teaching today but a teacher's best asset in the classroom will always be a sense of humor. Find a way to make it fun and don't take yourself too seriously, and things will fall into place."
If she were to give any advice to parents, it would be to shower as much affection and attention on their children as possible and be available to them because you never know when they will want to talk. She bases her opinion on her experience as the mother of three sons as much as her experience as a teacher.
"It's important to remember that at this age, school is their job and it's work for them. Afterward they need time to relax and unwind just like we do. Try to eat dinner with your kids as often as possible. It sets up a time when they can tell you what's on their minds."
For students, her advice is similar - relax and take it one day at a time. "There's a lot to absorb and I know it seems scary sometimes. It's all new and the adults around you understand that. Don't be afraid to talk to them about it. Learn to ask for help when you need it. It's out there and it can make life a lot better."
Heikkila said she knows it will feel a little strange next fall when she doesn't return to Hudson Middle School but it doesn't appear she will be logging much couch potato time either.
Heikkila said she plans to spend more time volunteering at her church, Shepherd of the Valley in Lakeland. And she will be teaching, only this time students of the four-legged variety as part of Helping Paws, a program that provides and trains dogs to assist people with disabilities. For the past three years, Heikkila and her husband, David, have have trained puppies for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Now both retired from teaching, the couple's plans also include travel.
Heikkila said she is ready to begin a new chapter in her life, but she will miss a lot of things about teaching. "It's been a big, important part of my life, and I have a real sense of accomplishment about it. I hope I have made a positive difference in the lives of some of my students. They certainly have made a difference in mine."
Meg Heaton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org