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Phillips reflects on what's kept her teaching 38 years

Jan Phillips' own education in the small southern Wisconsin community of Darlington began in a one-room schoolhouse where she was one of five girls who made up her class.

As she prepares to retire after 38 years as a teacher, her career has taken her in many directions, but has seemed to lead back to her roots. While Knights House at Hudson Middle School is far from a one-room schoolhouse, it is as close as public education gets these days. "It's a family," Phillips says, and that feeling is what she values most as a teacher.

Phillips graduated from Viterbo College in La Crosse and started her career as a home economics teacher. Her first contract was in Trempealeau as the home ec teacher. Home visits to students there taught her what a "coulee" was and how to navigate the countryside by geographical landmarks. She went on to teach in La Crosse, Tennessee, St. Cloud, Minn., and at Oakland Junior High School in Stillwater and became certified to teach special education. She has been a teacher in the Hudson School District 25 years, first teaching home economics and English at the then junior high school and then English and language arts at Hudson Middle School. Along the way, she has earned advanced degrees in vocational and special education and a master's degree in professional development.

A complicated age

The majority of her career has been spent teaching sixth- and seventh-graders, an age she loves but admits presents challenges not only for teachers but parents and the students themselves.

"It is a complicated age - 12 and 13. They are moving from being children to young adults and they can't quite figure it out. And for parents, that first seventh-grader is tough. Parents don't get it. How can they go from being an A student at elementary school to something completely different in seventh grade? It's a pretty big change for everybody, and it takes some getting used to."

That's why Phillips is such a strong proponent of the middle school house concept. She helped to implement it in the Hudson district more than 16 years ago with then-Principal Bill Hickox, fellow middle school teachers Jay Wollan, Mike Yell and others. The first Hudson Middle School was housed in what is now Willow River Elementary, and she was on the team that laid the plans for the new middle school.

"It was a dream come true for us to move into a building designed based on a true middle school philosophy. It is among the things I am most proud of in my career."

Phillips believes in the middle school house concept because she says it provides both support and independence to students who are at an age where they need both. "We really get to know our students. We are right on top of them here. We know how they work, what their moods are, who they are. As their teachers, we share information, observations about how they're doing and what's going on with them. When parents come in, we often meet with them as a team and can support what is being said. There is just no better way to teach kids this age."

And Phillips loves her seventh-graders. They are the biggest reason she has stayed teaching as long as she has. "They are just so unique - full of energy, every one different from the next and every one with a story to tell. They can come with a lot of baggage. You have to get through that baggage to get to that little person inside, but it is always worth the effort."

Phillips said seventh grade is probably among the most difficult developmental stages for children because both their minds and bodies are going through so many changes. "They are trying to find where they fit in their families, with their friends, at school and in the community. It's a lot to handle at 12 or 13."

Phillips has also stayed teaching because of the people on her Knights House team. Four members of the team have been together for 16 years and they are "family."

"We've shared our lives - both the happy and sad times. We see our team members and our students more than our families sometimes, and I have loved working with them."

Phillips says one of the advantages of staying around as long as she has is the opportunity to see former students grow up and "do so many wonderful things with their lives. It is the best reward for a teacher."

As she leaves teaching, Phillips' advice for students is what you might expect from an English teacher - to read. "Read anything, just read. It's a challenge for some kids, but it is something they can always do and always benefit from no matter how old they are."

For parents, she advises patience. "The students I teach need some rules as well as some space. Set specific times for studying and keep up with what they are doing. Use resources like the school Web site to stay informed, and communicate with their teachers. They aren't always going to tell you what you need to know."

She also cautions parents not to let their children overextend themselves. "Don't schedule so much. Some of the kids have things going four to five nights a week. That's too much at this age. Be together with them, have dinner and talk while you eat. You'll be surprised by what you might learn. And be an example; be sure they see you reading."

Her plans beyond teaching include travel, beginning with a cruise back to Alaska to celebrate retirement and her 41st wedding anniversary with her husband, Kent. She will spend time at the couple's cabin with her children, Linda and Laura, and their families and helping out at the family business, Venison America.

But she knows it will be tough come next August when, for the first time in 38 years, she will not be decorating a classroom and planning for a whole new group of students. It has been journey she has enjoyed.

"I look back at my life and say, wow, I have come a long way since that farm girl in a one-room country school."

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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