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Stevens helped students find life lessons in history

After more than 30 years in a classroom, middle school social studies teacher Pat Stevens will retire at the end of this year. She will miss her students and co-workers, but is looking forward to the next part of her own personal history.

When asked to use one word to describe their teacher, Windsor House students in Pat Stevens social studies class came up with several -- awesome, great, funny and perky. Not bad for someone who has been on the job for more than 30 years.

Stevens will retire from teaching at the end of this school year. She goes out on a high note as one of the winners of this year's Education Foundation of Hudson Star Excellence teachers.

She began her career in Hudson after graduating from UW-River Falls with a degree in elementary education. She was hired by former middle school principal Bill Hickox, an important professional influence on her because of his personal integrity and support over the years. She began and will finish her career as a middle school teacher but did spend some time as a second- and fifth-grade teacher.

When she moved from sixth and seventh grade to teach second grade at Rock Elementary, she thought she would "kind of have to dumb down" her language for the younger children. "But as I described the imaginary line that circles around the center of the earth, one of them asked me if I meant the equator, and I realized that wasn't necessary."

Stevens said she enjoyed her elementary years and was especially lucky to have active and involved parents in her classroom. She was part of the transition team for the new Willow River Elementary School and moved there to teach fifth grade before returning to teach eighth-grade social studies.

Stevens says she loves teaching social studies. She describes it as a "kind of an umbrella" class that ties everything together -- history, culture, politics, social issues. "And students at this age are just starting to see how a lot of things they have learned fit together. That, and they begin to ask 'what if' questions. That's exciting to see when that light goes on and they begin to see the bigger picture. That's my favorite part of the job."

Stevens said her own interest in history began when she was young and she vacationed with her family to historic destinations around the country. "We tent camped all the way down the Mississippi and visited Civil War sites. When we were down south we saw the segregated "whites only" beaches. I grew up in north Minneapolis during the Civil Rights movement. It has always been an important part of my life. I think it has been an important part of my teaching as well."

Stevens was the driving force behind a Hudson Middle School tradition - Wild West Day. What started as an afternoon activity for just the students in her house has grown to an all-day, all-school event that even involves the first-graders from adjacent Hudson Prairie.

Stevens is obviously proud of how the event has grown and hopes it will continue after she leaves. Former students often drop by as the event approaches to remember and check out what's new.

A lot has changed in her profession, but Stevens says the most important improvements have come in curriculum development. "When I started out we didn't have a common curriculum. But that's all changed. We spend a lot of time talking about what we're going to teach and why we're going to teach it. And then make the best decision as to how you're going to teach it."

Stevens said most of her summer was spent planning her curriculum, thinking about how she would teach it and staging her classroom to fit her goals. "That way when the students came in that first day, I could focus on them and what they needed to learn. That's how I spent a lot of my summer vacation."

Stevens said the Hudson School District has changed a great deal over the year but she said the commitment to education and the welfare of the students has been a constant. She gives the district high marks on their emphasis on curriculum development and the technology improvements that had her going from a blackboard to a SMART board.

"I've really appreciated the chance to learn and use all of these tools in my work. I remember thinking how great it would be to have a phone in my room. Now I'm glad there's an answering machine."

Stevens is also happy that there is more diversity in the district. "That's a very good thing, especially in my subject area. It reflects more of how the world is. It's critical for our students to build their global awareness. It is a small step in Hudson but an important one."

She describes her eighth-graders as on the verge of something new. "Up until then, they are kind of like sponges, soaking up everything we tell them at school and at home. But as eighth-graders they begin putting it together. They start making connections and asking questions about why things are the way they are and will or should they change. That's when you know they are getting it, starting to make sense of things. It's more about the questions they ask then the answers they give."

Stevens said she will miss her students, who she says have always been nice and have "good hearts." She said students haven't changed much over the years but the world they live in has. When she started, most families had a stay-at-home parent.

"And our lives weren't as busy. Parents are so busy these days. We used to always have one parent at conferences. That isn't the case today, not because they don't care but because there just isn't enough time in the day."

Her advice for students sounds very "teacher-like" but true. "Do your best all the time. The years go by so fast and if you don't do the work, you could miss the opportunities out there."

For parents, Stevens urges talk. "You have to know what's going on with them, and the only way to do that is to talk to them. Don't be afraid to ask questions and push for answers. Don't get so busy that you forget to spend time with them."

Her students are at an important age where they are just beginning to discover their individuality and that it is "cool to be different."

The teacher hired to replace Stevens next year is a former second-grade student of hers. Her advice to her and other new teachers is simple.

"You have got to enjoy what you do. It's not about the salary but the mission. There are days that are tougher than others, when you have to be more of an actress than anything else, but you have to love teaching and being in the classroom with the kids. It can't work otherwise."

Stevens said she will continue to be active in her church and plans on doing a little baby-sitting, traveling and spending time with her two daughters and their families (including four grandchildren) and her parents. She also hopes to do some supervising of student teachers.

She is looking forward to the change but will likely be a little plagued by an odd feeling come next fall.

"I think I will miss the activity. I never took a sick day because I was sure I would miss something interesting, and I hate to miss anything."

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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