When Laura Ida was a little girl in Milwaukee, she loved to line all of her stuffed animals up in neat rows and pretend she was their teacher.
“I’d tell my mom that my stuffed animals were my students,” Ida recalled last week in her fourth-grade classroom at Hudson’s E.P. Rock Elementary School.
“I’ve always felt comfortable working with children, and school was always fairly easy for me, so it became a goal to help others learn. It just seemed like a natural.”
Ida didn’t know it when she was growing up, but her mother, too, always dreamed of being a teacher. But, as they say, life got in the way.
“She never fulfilled that dream. She never even talked to me about it, either, until many years later,” said Ida, who will be retiring in June after 35 years of teaching, the last 15 in Hudson.
Her mother died in 1996, so she never got to see Ida’s daughter Marie become a preschool teacher in Stoughton. She also won’t be there to see Marie start teaching kindergarten next year.
“But I like to think she’s up there smiling,” said Ida, who also has a son Paul, a security supervisor in Menomonie. “When I watch my daughter now, I sometimes feel like teaching is inherited.”
Marie has a 2-year-old son Leyton, and while it’s too early to know whether he’ll grow up with the same teaching itch, Ida knows that the profession will always be a big part of his life.
“I want to spend more time with my family when I retire, especially that wonderful grandchild in Stoughton,” she noted. “I look forward to having the freedom to set my own schedule. I look forward to waking up in the winter and saying, ‘Well, the roads look good today. I think I’ll drive to Stoughton and see Marie and Leyton.’”
Windows to history and culture
Meanwhile, Ida has her Rock Elementary fourth-graders who have been the center of her day-to-day world since she arrived in 2004.
Before that, she spent four years at North Hudson Elementary and one year at Houlton Elementary after 20 years teaching learning-disabled children in Wausau, New Auburn, Baraboo and Milwaukee.
“Fourth grade is just such a fun age,” Ida smiled. “They have a good foundation for learning, and they’re still very excited about learning.
“In fourth grade, you’re building on your students’ basic skills and helping your children learn how to learn more for the rest of their lives. … Here, I’m with 25 young individuals all day, every day, and, in some ways you’re a mother to them – in fact, some of them sometimes slip and call me ‘mom.’ You’re taking care of so many of their individual needs and helping their learning and development continue to happen after they leave the classroom.”
Ida teaches her kids math, social studies, science and language skills, but her favorite might be reading.
“The easiest part of the job for me is enjoying a story in class together. I love doing that,” she said.
It’s also a chance to expand her student’s historical and cultural field of vision. This year, for example, her class read Karen Levine’s book, “Hana’s Suitcase,” the true story of a young girl who was murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. They also read K.L. Goings’s “The Liberation of Gabriel King,” the 1970s tale of a fear-laden white boy and his friend, a brave young African-American girl named Frita.
“The book introduces the children to that very turbulent time in American history, when racial prejudice was still very much alive, and there are school conflicts in the book,” Ida said of the latter.
“At one point, Gabriel and Frida make a ‘fear list,’ and that helped them learn how to conquer their fears, which is a valuable skill to learn about in fourth grade.”
Both books also “emphasize the importance of being respectful to all people,” she added.
Up-close and personal
Those kinds of lessons don’t end with the books Ida’s kids read -- she also adds a personal touch whenever it’s possible and appropriate. One year on Immigration Day, for example, the mother of one of Ida’s Hmong students gave a presentation about her experiences in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
“She told us about how, when she was about fourth-grade age, she had to escape through the jungle -- and what an experience that was,” Ida noted. “She also brought a little jacket she wore when she was that age, and it fit her son now in the fourth grade.”
Ida, too, brings potent real-life experiences of her own to her teaching. One of those was her first teaching job in Milwaukee during Phase I of the city’s controversial schools desegregation plan. Another was her time in Wausau, where about a quarter of her students were Hmong, “straight from a refugee-camp experience.”
“To learn about Hmong culture and how different their education was: That was very, very interesting,” Ida said.
There are many other kinds of lessons for her fourth-graders, of course, and, for Ida, the best part is when the eureka moments happen.
“That’s always a favorite moment for a teacher, when the light bulb goes on in a child’s eyes, and you can see how happy they are to understand something,” she explained.
“One girl I remember thought she’d never be able to understand long division. And when she finally understood it, she wrote me this sweet card telling me how much she’s going to love math from now on.
“You get the same feeling when they show an ability to ask good questions in class. Then you know that they’re applying what they’ve learned to their own lives and their own futures. “
Ida’s future after retirement? She plans to work as a substitute teacher in Hudson, continue to be active in her church, travel and, well, let the rest happen as it will.
“All of my retired friends assure me that many new adventures await me,” she said. “So I’m trusting them with that.”