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After 21 years, Judy Meincke retires -- sort of

Judy Meincke's kindergarten classroom at Willow River Elementary reflects her approach to teaching. Everything in it is there to help children grow and learn, all with a loving hand. Photo by Meg Heaton

Judy Meincke began her teaching career in Hudson in 1976. That very first year after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she took a job as a kindergarten teacher at the then Fourth Street School, now the site of Willow River Elementary. This June she finishes her career at that same site.

In between Meincke, 58, taught first and third grade at North Hudson Elementary for 10 years. She resigned when she and now retired teacher Carl Meincke began their family of four boys. In 2001 she returned to teaching working as a pre-school teacher at Pooh Corner Nursery School and was ultimately rehired by the Hudson School District in 2003 to again teach kindergarten.

All that adds up to 37 years in Hudson, in and out of teaching, and Meincke believes all of it has been valuable to her life as a teacher.

"So much has changed in education during that time. In 1976, all kindergarten was half day. We had two hours and 40 minutes with our students and most of what we did centered around play. That's how we taught them to listen, to take turns, care for materials and clean up. We taught math concepts through play too -- building with blocks, sorting by color, size and shape, adding and subtracting concrete objects, all the concepts they would need as they went ahead. We had snack and a nap. We still do those things but not every day. The expectations for kindergarten were different."

Meincke remembers when Hudson went to all-day kindergarten. She was at home with her boys and went to a meeting explaining it. "Initially I didn't know what to think. People were saying it would be like using school as daycare or that it would be more like first grade. But we were assured that it would still include a lot of play and just mean more time for those basic concepts. It sounded good."

The reality fell somewhere in between, according to Meincke, and when she came back to teach in 2003 she adjusted to a new type of kindergarten. Along with the new expectations for kindergarten, she makes sure her students still get to do some of the traditional kindergarten things -- like play.

She has heard kindergarten described as the new first grade with more emphasis on reading and math. While the rest mats from the old days are still there, there isn't always time to use them. "It can be a challenge sometimes but we always work to see that the curriculum we teach is development appropriate for the kids."

Meincke says that while there have been significant changes in the kindergarten curriculum, the Hudson School District has always provided good training and support for her as a teacher. "Whenever there has been anything new, there is always a lot of talk and training about it. I think that kind of support has been very important to making the changes work."

When asked if she has seen many changes in her students over the years, especially since she came back to teaching, she says "Kids haven't but their families have."

"There are so many blended families now -- lots of stepparents and grandparents. The family dynamics for some of them have changed. Parents work very hard and many not out of choice but necessity. But I have always found that most of them still want to help whenever they can. My own experience at home taught me to be much less judgmental. I know how tough it is to keep it all together, how easy it can be to lose a kid at Walmart -- it happened to me. I think my time at home left me with a kind of 'been there, done that' insight that has helped me as a teacher."

Meincke believes children are exposed to many things at a much earlier age and that it is easy to forget how young they are. "The most important thing to remember is that kids need time to develop. It is the single most important thing in making them successful in school."

Meincke said her colleagues have also been an important part of her professional life. She has worked under every Hudson superintendent since Al Oglund and has learned to appreciate how difficult the job of school administration is. She has also worked for several principals, all with different styles but all "good people."

But she has especially appreciated the support and guidance of her fellow teachers throughout the years. "I have been so lucky to work with people like Sandy Conrath, the guru of kindergarten teachers and a whole host of others, almost everybody I have worked with. Finding a mentor, someone you can go to on a bad day or share something great with is so important."

That's the advice she would like to leave for the teachers who come after her. "Find someone you can respect and you can talk to. It doesn't have to be a formal relationship but someone you can go to for support and encouragement."

To the young students that will come after her, she says "Work hard and do your best and read a lot. That's how you will learn. Play fair and find people who are nice to you and spend time with them."

For parents she suggests reading, reading and more reading. "What kids need is time from their parents and reading to them regularly is the single best way to make them successful in school -- not just in reading but in all areas. And it is good stress reliever for parents as well."

Meincke won't stray far from the school door in her retirement. Along with spending more time with her family and doing some traveling, she intends to be a volunteer at Willow River helping students become better readers. "I want to see kids get excited about reading. It is so fun and so much a part of being successful in school. If I have a goal it is to have them learn to love books."

With all the changes in kindergarten over the years, some things are still the same and some will be missed more than others. "You get lots of hugs around the legs as a kindergarten teacher. They are wonderful but usually pretty quick. I got quite a long one recently before I realized I was being used as a handkerchief. I left a marker in my pants and put them through the wash and I got sneezed on pretty good this morning, but it all goes with the territory."

And just like any busy working mother, Meincke sent along a note following this interview with a few things she forgot to mention.

"I'm not even sure if I told you how much I really love my job. It is so rewarding to work with young children and their parents and see the children's growth from the beginning of the year to the end. Being a primary teacher, I also get to see the children for several more years after they leave my classroom and watch their growth as they move from grade to grade. I have worked with wonderful people over the years and I'm going to really miss the daily connection with the students and staff."

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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