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By LeAnn R. Ralph
BOYCEVILLE — After teaching second grade and third grade in the Boyceville school district for 34 years, Debra Bell is retiring and closing her classroom door for the last time.
Bell is originally from Viroqua where she grew up on a farm and attended school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. She attended UW-Stout to earn her undergraduate degree and her master’s degree.
She taught her first year in the Owen-Withee school district in Early Childhood Education/Special Education, and then she was hired in the Boyceville school district, with William Amundson as superintendent and Ted Bissel as her principal.
“First I was a Title I Para Educator from November until the end of the year and worked out of a trailer in the back of the old school that has since been torn down,” Bell said.
“Then I spent the rest of my career teaching second and third grade. About 25 years ago, I had a student teacher, Angela Hellmann, who they hired, and I found my looping partner. We began looping every year after that, moving from second to third grade. Angie Hellmann would always be opposite my grade. I was so excited my last year to actually be able to teach alongside with Angie finally,” she said.
When asked why she decided to go into teaching, Bell was adamant that she never intended to be a teacher.
“I was NOT going into education. I fought it because so many in my family were teachers,” Bell said.
“I was going into journalism or photography. I was in college still undecided and took a test that said I’d be a good teacher. I retook that test two or three times, hoping it would change. I kept getting the same results. I think I was destined to be a teacher but didn’t know it at the time,” she said.
After more than three decades in education, Bell has observed many changes.
“I have worked under 14 administrators in Boyceville. The teachers have become lifelong friends. They stay here because this is their home. They love the Boyceville community,” she said.
“There is always a pendulum swing from one extreme to the next in regards to what we teach and how we teach it. I have seen that pendulum swing back and forth a few times over the years. We have been lucky that we have stayed the course and really managed to not get on every bandwagon that comes along. We ground ourselves in long term data and what is best for students,” Bell said.
“For a while, some people, in general, got away from appreciating, trusting or knowing that teachers know what/how to teach. For a period of time that was unappreciated. I believe that has changed back again, especially after this COVID-19. People now understand that there is a lot that goes into teaching students that a lot of people don’t see or know about. Teachers trained for this, and I believe the parents will trust that teachers know what’s best for students and school,” she said.
“I have always seen this community stand strong for their school through thick and thin. From building a new school and tearing down the one that was dripping of mold and white ceiling particles dropping into students’ hair while I was teaching to the new beautiful buildings we have and are so proud of. Our school is the hub of the community, and they should be proud,” Bell said.
When asked what she liked best about teaching in Boyceville, Bell said she loved connecting with people.
“I loved it when I had an entire family’s kids, their parents, siblings, their cousins. This last two years, 80 percent of my class I had their parents or a sibling. If you know me, you know that I love meeting new people, keeping in touch, figuring out who and how you are connected with someone else I know. I get teased about that sometimes. They say I know everyone. I don’t — but I’d like to,” she said.
Inner Light Lab
Bell says implementing a health resiliency curriculum in Boyceville is one of her memorable experiences as a teacher.
“In 1996, learning about health resiliency came to Boyceville where we worked to train all staff to learn about ‘Health Realization,’ through a grant connected with the Menomonie school district. I became the ‘Health Resilience Coordinator’ for the Boyceville school district. I wrote third grade health curriculum that was approved by the Boyceville school board in 2000,” Bell said.
“Five years ago, I teamed up with Paula Smith, a retired school psychologist, and we began an approach to increase success in the classroom. We began mentoring and coaching staff, updated the curriculum and had students trained second through high school,” she said.
“This program is replicable because we have self-published the curriculum lessons and grant monies have allowed for tubs with lessons, materials and books in at least seven classrooms,” she said.
“We have conducted parenting courses, ‘Parenting With Heart,’ and Family Nights to link school with home. We also started a breathing/calm room last year. We call it our ‘Inner Light Lab.’ It’s a place to go to calm our thinking when we get too stressed,” Bell said.
“Our lives are richer when we have knowledge that we are ‘Thinkers’ — we can change our thinking at any time. ‘Noticers’ — we can notice when we are not in a good place and should wait until we calm down or our mind clears. All of us are born with a ‘healthy core’ — with kids we say we have a star shining — within us,” she said.
“A lifelong goal has been to teach students, parents, student teachers, support staff and teachers that they can learn to calm down and have a healthy resilient life by learning strategies to improve their mental health, such as breathing techniques, yoga, learn mindful ways to change their thinking, and lessons which improve their mental health. I feel confident that this initiative will continue well into the future with Shannon Bignell leading the way,” Bell said.
“I am also proud of the fact that I have trained 40 student teachers,” she said.
Out of school
After three and a half decades in education, Bell says she is going to miss everything about being an educator.
“I will miss laughing with students and the spontaneous discussions with students about life. I will miss the hugs, smiles, lightbulbs going off, the gifts of precious artwork. I will miss my team and colleagues and our positive atmosphere at work. I will miss all of it!” she said.
But even though Bell is going to miss the students and her colleagues, she has many plans for retirement, including sleeping late, gardening, going for many walks and traveling.
“My trip to Norway with all of my cousins for fall was cancelled due to COVID-19,” Bell said.
She also is happily anticipating being a grandmother.
“My daughter is having a baby in August, so I am looking forward to being a grandma for the first time,” she said.
When asked if there was anything else she wanted to add, Bell included:
“With a smile and a full heart, I am closing my laptop and finishing my 35th school year as an educator. I will not be a classroom teacher again. I am ready for the next step. I am excited to see what happens. I will not be sitting at home, doing nothing, I promise. I will keep you posted.”