Eddie leaves legislature behind
For seven terms, Russ Eddie has helped to shape the legislation that has made Iowa classrooms run.
Now, he's back home taking the opportunity to discover first-hand how well it has worked.
Meet the newest Storm Lake Community School District substitute teacher - and just call him Mr. Eddie, kids.
As he retires from the Iowa House of Representatives, Eddie has sought his substitute teaching certificate, and taken his first turns as a sub in classrooms at the elementary and middle school. At age 64, he's not exactly looking for a new career, but his is happy to be learning even as he's helping children to learn.
"Being around children really does keep you young," Eddie said. "It's proving to be a very interesting experience."
Eddie describes himself as "an emergency man" - he doesn't want to take work away from the other teachers, but wants to be there when the schools really need someone to step in at a moment's notice. Under IPERS rules, he became eligible to start teaching in November.
He found that there is a severe shortage of substitutes in the state, so for the one-time high school instructor, no additional hours of study or certification was necessary. He went straight into the classroom - where he last worked in 1966.
"It seems to me that kids are still kids, and what kids are like really hasn't changed that much over the years," Eddie said. "And yes, the first thing the kids do still is to try to take advantage of the substitute teacher."
Most of the kids don't realize that their fill-in teacher happens to have been one of the leading and most tenured of Iowa lawmakers, partly responsible for the shaping of modern Iowa educational policy.
"They don't know who I am - I'm just the sub. I did have one eighth-grade girl who came up to me and asked me if I knew President Bush," he said. "I told her that I did - that I've met him several times and had my picture taken with him, and that he's even signed that picture for me. She seemed almost awestruck. It's a good feeling to have a young person trust you enough to ask you a question."
While the political world can be frustrating and disappointing at times, Eddie said it is fun to think that the students he may see today in Storm Lake may be among the leaders at some level years from now. "I certainly wouldn't steer a student away from it," he said.
Eddie doesn't come into the classroom entirely a stranger. He's been involved with education since graduating from Buena Vista College in 1960, first as a teacher and coach in Royal for several years, then as a little league coach for almost 25 years and a long-time member of the Albert City-Truesdale school board.
Most recently, he agreed to accept a vacant seat on the Arrowhead Area Education Agency board of directors, filling in for Susan Moore to complete the term that runs until the AEA merges into a new board next July.
He and wife Gladys raised four children of their own, and several members of the family are involved with education careers of their own, which has helped to keep him close to the subject during his years as a lawmaker.
"I like to be around kids. I wouldn't want to teach every day at my age, or commit to something in the long term, but for me, this is working out very well," he said of his return to the classroom.
There is much to be learned, even for the teacher. "On the first day, I wore a tie and a coat, and was surprised to find out that I looked totally out of place. That's how I found out about 'casual Fridays' for teachers the hard way."
One of his first assignments was to teach art at the middle school. "I told the principal that I didn't know anything about art, and he said, 'That's okay. You won't need to.' Thank goodness there was a student teacher there who knew a lot about art, and she got me through that morning."
Classrooms outfitted for computers and other technology are new to Eddie, but some things never change. "I find that you have to keep them busy, that's the first thing," he said. "I taught an elementary physical education class, and I'd forgotten that a kid at that age never keeps their hands still. They really like to pick on each other, and I discovered immediately that if you want to teach PE to little children, you definitely should bring a whistle."
He wondered how aggressive it was appropriate to be in the classroom these days.
"I really didn't know how much a teacher should be expected to discipline a child, but on the first day, I watched what they other teachers did, and I would have to say they are pretty no-nonsense. I followed what they did, and found that you do have to raise your voice at times to get their attention."
Russ had never lost his appreciation for teachers, but it becomes stronger with each day he spends in the schools on the heels of his legislative career.
"Let me tell you, a good teacher earns every dime he or she gets - the good ones do. I've always said that if you've got a bad teacher, you've got a bad administrator, because the ones who don't live up to what we need can and should be weeded out of the schools," he said. "Stop to realize that our teachers have our kids as much or more than their parents do, so we had better have very good teachers if we expect those kids to turn out right."
When asked about the legislation he helped to form over many years in Des Moines that will impact the classrooms where he now works, Eddie said that he is most proud of efforts like the bill that launched mentoring programs for veteran teachers to help young teachers, and early childhood reading programs.
"Mentoring is very important to keep good teachers in the classroom. When I started in teaching ages ago, I had a principal who stepped in and mentored me, and his advice was invaluable to me," he said. "And anything to do with getting a good start in reading is a cornerstone of what we're trying to accomplish. We also passed open enrollment legislation in one of the first years I was down there, and I think that's been important."
One might notice that the landmarks he mentions are not financial programs, or even teacher pay bills. In the long run, the philosophical efforts may be more important than the economic ones, he feels.
"I really think that every year we have tried to give schools as much as we possibly could, although some teachers will probably disagree with that," he added. "My experience is that education is a priority for 99 percent of the legislators who are elected in Iowa, and I can tell you that it makes no difference what party they belong to when it comes to education."
Still, schools don't have all the tools Eddie wishes they could be given.
"I listen to Storm Lake Superintendent [Bill] Kruse talk about the impact of the "No Child Left Behind" federal legislation, and the requirements they will have to meet. All schools are going to have a real challenge meeting that, and in Storm Lake, where there is so much ethnic diversity and quite a few special needs children, I don't know how it could be possible. I think the teachers here are doing about all they can humanely be expected to do."
Attitudes are another challenge.
"I notice it now, and this was true back when I taught high school years ago - there are some kids who just don't care. Sure it starts at home, and if mom and dad don't have learning as a priority, the child may not either. That isn't the teacher's fault. I never have been able to figure out how you are supposed to legislate attitude," Eddie said.
"My advice to parents would be to take that child every single day and express to them that education matters, that they should do the best they can possibly do every single day at school. We only have them for a very short time, and once those school years are gone, it's too late."
Little things sometimes mean a lot, too.
"When I was growing up, penmanship was important, and I think we've lost that. I'd like to see kids take pride in what they write, and write it so that others can read it," he said. "We may use computers today, but when I sign my name to something, I want people to know it. It bothers me when a child's signature, or an adult for that matter, is just an unreadable scrawl."
So, for a retiring legislator, it's time to hit the classroom, and see the first-hand effect of all of those debates under the golden dome. He also plans to get involved more with the community, more with Kiwanis, more of about everything. "When I fins good things to do, I want to do them."
For the first time, winter's starting, and he doesn't have to be poring over issues and sweating out state budgets.
"I say I won't miss it, but that's probably a lie," he said. "I run into the other legislators from around here, and they tell me what they're up to, and I think, 'Hey, I'd really like to be at that meeting.' Representative [Dan] Huseman ran into me at Pronto and was telling me that the House chambers are all redecorated and how nice it looks, and I was thinking that I'd really like to see that. I might go down for the first day just to see the swearing in, but then again, I probably won't.
"I probably will miss it all, but I'm finding out that there's always another life afterwards."
So, Russ Eddie decides that hanging out with sixth graders and hammering out some American History is a better use of his days than going down to the coffee shop wih his fellow retirees.
"I think I can learn from the kids about as much as they can learn from me, starting with patience - lots of patience," he said.
And this year, he will discover which is easier to get along with - a stubborn third-grader or an angry Democrat.
"It's okay," he laughs, "I've always gotten along fine with both of them - at least most of the time."