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Claudia Kell: kids are her passion

Claudia Kell is passionate about all her students. She sits in front of her Wall of Fame with photos of all the students she has taught over her 15 years at Hudson Prairie Elementary. Photo by Meg Heaton

Claudia Kell may be retiring this month but she isn't leaving education and probably never will. "I am just choosing to change the atmosphere a little."

Kell has been a fifth-grade teacher at Hudson Prairie Elementary since it opened 15 years ago. Prior to that she worked in the learning disabilities program at Hudson Middle School for two years. She taught kindergarten and first grade for a short time after college but when she and husband Dave began their family, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom.

During that time, living in Hudson, Kell just did that change of atmosphere thing -- she was one of the co-founders of the Hudson Moms' Group which is still going strong, started several babysitting coops, wrote curriculum for WITC parent-child programs and led Scouts, choirs and youth groups.

When she was asked about why she wanted to come back to teaching when Prairie Elementary opened, it was time to change that atmosphere up again. And while she has felt that whatever age she teaches is the best, her 15 years of fifth-graders have inspired her. Talking about them can bring her to tears just like a lot of things do when she talks about students. But just as quickly she is laughing or explaining some lightbulb moment with one of her kids.

For Kell, getting to know her students, inside and out, is the most important thing she can do to help them learn. She believes fifth grade is a big turning point for children, preparing to leave elementary school and middle and high school. They need help and confidence to make that transition.

"It is a very confusing time for them. They can feel like they want to crawl in your lap and be rocked and just as fast, want to run away. They want to be independent but they don't know exactly what that means. It's my job to help them navigate that."

To that end, Kell has developed a whole series of ways to help students not only learn academically but understand the people they are, their strengths, their weaknesses, how to express themselves and how to learn from their mistakes.

In her classroom, "mistakes are an opportunity to learn.

"We all make mistakes. I want students to find their own voice and ask for help. We all need help to get through life."

Kell says establishing that personal connection to each of her students every year is critical in motivating them. Making them feel important to her is part of that connection. Every year with a new class starts the same. "I tell them that I don't have one friend in this room that I had last year so I want to get to know them. They may be nervous or scared but so am I. It puts us in the same place." She also never misses an opportunity to make eye contact and have close, face to face conversations with her students. "You learn so much about them. It builds trust between us."

Kell believes students are capable of thinking and doing a lot of things for themselves that adults may not realize but she also says that boundaries set by parents and the adults in their lives are important. "By giving them boundaries, they will empower themselves. If you always do things for them, that can't happen. Honor the abilities in your kids. They all have the words. We just need to help them format them."

Kell believes that the fundamentals -- reading, writing and math -- aren't learning but rather tools children use to learn. Help a child and his or her family understand that, and she believes all students can be successful in school. "Our job is not to give them the answers but to help them find out how to get them for themselves. I'm a cheerleader to help get them there and when they do, it is so great. You never want to rob them of that joy."

As her last school year at Hudson Prairie comes to an end, Kell describes her current class the way she describes the previous 14 classes -- as blessings, plain and simple. She believes the best part of teaching are the relationships she has with students after they leave her classroom. John Dahl recently wrote this to his favorite teacher. "It is clear how much you care about your students and that you treat them as if they were your own kids. You believe in all of your students and bring the best out in them..You are a big reason for me going into education. The amount of lives you can impact as a teacher is huge. I hope I can impact even a fourth of the students you have."

Kell's advice for Dahl and others just beginning their teaching careers, "Look into the eyes of the child and listen with both ears. They have something powerful to say."

Her advice for the parents she will not meet next year is to set those boundaries and follow through on them. But also be ready to change them when they aren't necessary anymore and they are on to the next level of learning. "And watch that computer use!"

For her students, her advice is both simple and a challenge. "Respect others and you will learn the value of who you are. Say what you mean, mean what you say and do it with respect."

Kell's so-called retirement will continue to include children. She will be volunteering in classrooms where her son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Adriann teach. And there are babies that need rocking at Children's Hospital where daughter Rebecca works as a nurse. And with the return of son Jason and his wife to the area, she plans on lending a hand with their business. She and Dave plan on working in outreach programs and mission trips with older students, volunteering with a horseback riding program for young adults with special needs and "hanging out" with her three granddaughters.

So life will continue to be filled with children and with passion. Retirement won't change that.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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