‘Teaching should never be just a job’
NEW ULM – The interview with Dennis Ellingson, a sixth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, was interrupted several times by students. However, observing the ensuing interactions, I didn’t really mind.
The children needed Ellingson’s guidance on the rockets they were building for science class.
Ellingson calmly guided them along, suggesting this and that, nudging them toward the discovery and understanding of scientific concepts with what seemed like casual skill.
Science is a favorite subject area for Ellingson, although he has taught every possible subject, primarily in sixth grade.
He is retiring at the end of this year, 40 years after he began his career here in 1973.
Ellingson was born in Spring Grove and grew up and attended school in Decorah, Iowa. He says that his teachers and coaches were good role models and influenced his choice to teach and coach himself. His interest in working with people also made teaching a good professional fit.
Ellingson graduated from Luther College, Iowa, with a B.A. degree in 1973 and began his teaching career in New Ulm as a sixth-grade teacher in August 1973.
During his tenure at District 88 Schools, he coached the fifth and sixth grade multiple sport program for boys and girls at Washington Elementary for three years and was head girls seventh- and eighth-grade track coach for three years, assistant varsity boys track for six years, and head middle school and varsity girls cross country coach for nine years.
Ellingson has served as grade level co-chair, elementary science curriculum chair, district professional development chair, negotiations crisis committee member and teaching staff insurance committee representative.
He was also a workshop presenter for the Best Practice in Science Initiative for the Minnesota Department of Education and Best Practice Field Team, Region 9.
In 1985-1990, Ellingson and his wife Louise, a fellow teacher at Washington, accepted teaching positions at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo, Japan, where he taught fifth grade and coached middle school basketball and varsity track.
In the fall of 1990, the Ellingsons returned to New Ulm. Ellingson earned his master’s degree in 2002 at St. Mary’s University, Winona. He has continued teaching sixth grade.
He has been active in vocal music events in New Ulm, including the Messiah as tenor soloist, church choir and service soloist, Prairie Arts Chorale of Marshall and Lesperance Singers of Tokyo. He continues his fitness passion, training and competing in triathlons in surrounding states.
The field of teaching has evolved over the span of his career, Ellingson said in the interview.
When he first started teaching, family structures were much more cohesive, he noted. Expectations for learners were set in a different way, at home and in the community.
Today, students face multiple outside influences; potential detracters from the real purpose of education. As responsibility for learning has shifted from the learner to the educational system, state government has instituted accountability measures in an attempt to get a refocus on learning. However, when students are interested in learning, they learn so much better, “deeper,” they perform at a higher level. State expectations as a motivator are not quite as effective.
Ellingson explains his professional “longevity” with his personal convictions: his belief in the critical importance of education in the lives of young people, and his desire to be part of the process.
The best part of education, he notes, are “the everyday things that happen” – such as “having a little humor in the classroom.”
He would urge young colleagues to “make a personal connection with their students,” “let them know you care about their learning.”
“Teaching should never be just a job,” he noted.
He also suggests that beginning teachers would benefit from getting involved in the opportunities afforded by an educational setting. Confining yourself to just your own classroom only shows you part of the picture, “a little too narrow a vision,” he said.