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Advice from a one-room schoolhouse teacher

Posted 9/1/2015

It was a place most of us saw on shows like “Little House on the Prairie,” but a Mondovi woman was a real-life “Miss Beadle.” 99-year-old Wilma Synstad was the woman at the chalkboard for kids who lived outside Nelson, Wisconsin during The Depression. “I was a good teacher,” she said with the confidence of a seasoned educator. “There wasn’t too much else to do. I was valedictorian of my class so it came naturally.”

Norwegian Valley School outside Nelson, Wis. Photo credit: Buffalo County Historical Society
Photo credit: Buffalo County Historical Society

She and I had a nice conversation in her room at American Lutheran Homes in Mondovi, where she will celebrate 100 years of life in October. I wanted to pick her brain about the teaching moments she experienced inside the four walls of her school. She said she loved being with the children, who ranged in age from six to 15. She had to manage lessons for more than a dozen students at different learning levels. “Well, it was what I did. I didn’t know any better,” she said.

She had to worry about their brains and their hands and feet. Back then; the teacher was also the maintenance crew in charge of heat. “We built our own fires, took care of our own fires, it was a challenge.” And the challenges of the depression era were great, but Wilma said her one-room schoolhouse was an escape for the kids. “We had to ignore it and teach them.” She kept them warm, listened to their worries, taught them what they needed to know and dreamed with them, too. “That they go on to bigger and better things,” she recalled.

When Wilma and I talked of today’s schools and the hustle and bustle, she said it “sounds exciting!” Her advice for teachers in 2015? That they put the children first and “treat them all equally, no teacher’s pets.” She went on to explain that the other children can feel it when there’s a preference. She said the students need to feel that their teacher cares for them. Wilma, we salute you and all the other teachers of today and yesterday. Thank you all for shaping the minds of millions.

Written by Grace Lutheran Communities staff writer

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