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After 35 years, HHS will miss ‘Lewis’

Craig Lewis said he is ending his 35-year Hudson teaching career on a high note. In recent years he has been a STRIVE teacher working with students who need an alternative to traditional high school and he says it has been the best experience in his career. (Submitted photo) 1 / 2
Craig Lewis is known for his sense of humor and it was evident at his last parent conferences when he jokingly tried to hide his name plate. By his calculations it was the 104th parent conference of his career. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

"Lewis" is pretty much how students at Hudson High School refer to one of their most senior teachers.

That would be Craig Lewis who is retiring from teaching after 35 years and all but a few months of that time at Hudson.

To call his style laid-back is something of an understatement but his focus over the past three and a half decades was to give students the best possible edge when it came to life’s most important skills -- the ability to communicate.

He was hired as a speech teacher. He taught argumentation, a class that was dropped from the curriculum years ago but might just be coming back. He taught English classes, theater, and a broadcasting class that had students producing their own shows. But he worked just as hard and put in as many, if not more, hours outside of the classroom.

Lewis was the school’s debate coach for 24 years. He remembers the last debate meet the team went to in Eau Claire in 2003. “No other teams turned up. We were the last one.”

He was the forensics coach for more than three decades taking countless students to meets all over the region and annually competing at the state competition in Madison where students consistently earned top honors. And his Quiz Bowl teams regularly competed nationally.

Lewis recruited students for his speech teams who were often not who one might expect to find on a debate or forensic team. According to his principal Peg Shoemaker, Lewis would encourage students who could be considered on the fringe to join the teams and “these students would be changed.”

She pointed to the example of a student who came to Hudson from India, unable to speak much English. Lewis recruited him and worked with him and it wasn’t long before he began to take off. Today that student has a Ph.D and is a faculty member at MIT.

Lewis said he realizes that teachers have a lot of demands on their time but he encourages them to do extracurricular activities.

“Teachers who don’t do some activity outside of the classroom miss out on the chance to know their students in a different way.”

But with all the success of the students he has worked with over the years, Lewis said it is his experience as a member of the STRIVE faculty and working with at-risk students at HHS that has been “the best of my 35 years in education.”

He credits STRIVE program director Cindy Mitchell, who he calls the “earth mother” of STRIVE, and his colleagues on the STRIVE team, for creating an environment where students can not only achieve but thrive.

“It is so nice to really know these kids and have the chance to sit down and talk about how they are doing and how we can help.”

Lewis said he has seen a lot of changes in his 35 years in curriculum and testing but he is concerned with anything that takes a teacher’s time away from interacting with their students. That said, he doesn’t believe class size matters all that much. He has had classes with as many as 30 students and now has 15 in his STRIVE classes.

“You teach differently when the group is larger or smaller. But I think a teacher should be able to adjust to a variety of circumstances and variety is always good. Some years I had preps for four different classes. I like changing it up every few years.”

In recent years, Lewis has taken in foster children, teenagers who are often difficult to place. It is an extension of something he has done throughout his career. He says, “I get them.”

“These kids, all kids, need us. They push you away but the truth is they are not fully cooked yet, and they come running back. If I could tell parents anything – be willing to talk to your kids, please talk to them.”

Lewis never really thought that he had a style of teaching but his students have told him otherwise. When he’s run into former students over the years, they say how much they loved his class. When he asks why, the response is often the same.

“You never talked down to us. You just talked to us.”

Lewis is a big believer in making a personal connection with students. He says an exercise developed by former HHS principal Laura Love reinforced that idea for the entire faculty.

Before the start of the school year, she would place the name of every student on the walls of the gym. Teachers, staff members, janitors, anyone who worked at the school, were given color–coded stickers for students they knew well, just by name or had in class and place them by their names.

“The idea was to identify those kids with nobody they had a connection to at school. Stepping back and seeing those names with no stickers beside them, it really made an impact. If they don’t have anybody at school, maybe they don’t have anybody anywhere.” Love told her staff to pick at least one of them and make a connection. “I think that is one of my favorite programs of all.”

Lewis has some advice for people he has been around for the last 35 years.

“For the kids, be who you are. Find a way to be happy with the person you are and don’t hide it.

As for parents, “Your kids need you, whatever that means to them.” Patting his head, “Up here they might think they are adults, (patting his heart) but here they’re not.”

And to teachers just at the beginning of their careers, “Teaching is a calling. If you don’t have a calling, don’t do it. Don’t use this job as a stepping stone to something else. It’s important work.”

Lewis has his professional “heroes” including former HHS teachers Helen Hughes, John Ronning, George Bowman, Mary Britton and Steve Kocmund.

It seems likely that to the students he’s taught and colleagues he’s known, the same will be said of Lewis.

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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