Alumni sisters see challenges, rewards in the profession
The basement walls of their childhood home are still filled with white chalk handwriting.
High on the wall in big letters, it reads “Mrs. Johnson. Day 2.”
Growing up, the Ariss sisters’ unfinished basement became a make-believe classroom. The cement walls were the black board. Old desks from a nearby church were recovered and school workbooks with blank pages at the back were reopened. The sisters took turns being Mrs. Johnson or another teacher name they invented.
Lindsey Ariss recalls waiting patiently for her turn to tell her two older sisters what to do.
“Being the youngest the majority of the time, I didn’t get to be the teacher,” she recalls.
Today the three sisters don’t have to take turns being teacher. They’re all teaching or entering the profession. Lindsey will graduate from UWL in December 2017 with degrees in education and Spanish. Her sisters, UWL alums Jaimie Andrews and Courtney Carlson, earned degrees in education in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Andrews is now a special education teacher at Cashton Elementary School while Carlson teaches special education in the Prairie du Chien School District.
It would appear that each sister followed the other into education, but in fact, they all followed their desire to work with kids.
As teens they were the babysitters next door and the swim lesson instructors at the local pool. They sought out work that would bring them closer to kids. And when they went away to college at UW-La Crosse, they all decided to continue on that path in teaching careers — even as teachers landed at the center of a major political battle in the state.
The oldest sister, Andrews, says she encouraged her younger sister Lindsey to think hard about whether going into education was the right choice when she was starting college in fall 2013.
“The state of education in our state was uneasy and challenging,” says Andrews. “I encouraged her to think about that and realize the challenges she might face, especially at the start of her career.”
Lindsey decided to pursue education anyway. She recognized the job is much more complex and nuanced than the sisters’ childhood scenarios of writing names and lessons on the board. Beyond politics, teachers are working with real people every day. Kids bring to school, not just a brain for working through lessons, but an entire self filled with diverse and complex emotions, says Lindsey.
But that aspect is what Lindsey finds most rewarding.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is when kids are upset or are acting out they will all react differently. Some kids will say they need time by themselves — and they actually do — while others say that but don’t mean that,” she says. “You see that all kids are different and it’s important to build relationships with them so they open up to you and feel safe and comfortable talking to you about anything.”
Andrews finds a similar sense of fulfillment by helping kids — not just with the lesson at hand — but socially and emotionally too. She is drawn to kids who need more support. “That’s why I think I went into special ed,” she says.
When kids struggle with a particular subject, it’s tempting to get down and feel like you’re not doing your job as a teacher, says Andrews.
“But we have to stay grounded and keep in mind the bigger mission we have as educators … our biggest mission is preparing kids to be contributing members of society,” says Andrews. “A lot of times helping kids grow in other areas [outside of the specific day’s lesson] is what will help them get there and understand it.”
Carlson recalls the family taking day trips to La Crosse growing up. They’d drive by UWL and their father, Jim, would point to the campus and say, “That’s where I went to school.”
“I have always looked up to my dad and thought that was so cool,” says Courtney.
When she approached high school graduation, UWL was the only place Carlson applied. Coming from the small Wisconsin city of Prairie du Chien, UWL had a similar small community feel, she says.
“I feel I had an actual relationship with the professors,” says Carlson. “They knew me and they knew about things in my life.”
Lindsey says professors frequently meet with her — even outside of office hours. Many offer their cell phones as the best way to reach them.
“I’m amazed how selfless they are,” she says. “You know their students are their primary focus.”
In that way, they’re similar to the Ariss sisters who still frequently get together today and the topic of education always comes up. They share what they’ve learned from their own classrooms and find support.
Andrews says the fact that Lindsey pursued education despite challenges the profession faces shows that she is the type of teacher dedicated to kids that the future needs.
“I’m excited to see what she does,” says Andrews.
A wide circle of support
Lindsey realized an even wider circle of support beyond her older sisters in spring 2016 when she received the Ruth A. Nixon-Davy scholarship for Spanish majors. Davy, who died in 2014, was also a teacher — both of high school Spanish and later at UWL. She chaired UWL’s Foreign Language Department and brought new opportunities and program exchanges to students.
Nixon-Davy initiated an annual conference for foreign language teachers in the area and received the Distinguished Foreign Language Teachers Award from the Wisconsin Association of Foreign Language Teachers. When she retired in 1984, her students started a UWL scholarship in her name.
“It makes you realize that there are people out there who believe in something as much as you do — whether that’s education or Spanish education,” says Lindsey.