By Erika Fehrenbach Prell
There are some people you meet and you just know they are doing exactly what they were put on this earth to do. Today’s life story is highlighting one of those people. Shalyn Gagnon is a 5th grade teacher at Altoona Intermediate School in Altoona, Wisconsin. She breathes positivity and possibility everywhere she goes. Grab a notebook and an open mind as we all have the honor of being taught by the best!
Begin at the Beginning - A Path to a Life’s Purpose
Shalyn grew up in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, a small town near La Crosse. She graduated from Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School in 1996. Shalyn married her high school sweetheart Nick, who is also a teacher, and they live in Altoona, Wisconsin with their family. They have three children (Madelyn, Liliana, and Liam) but consider Romina, their exchange student from Germany, their fourth child. Shalyn reports that being a wife and mother is her greatest joy.
When Shalyn was a kid, she thought she would become a lawyer because she liked to argue and have people listen to her; laughing, we agreed she wasn’t too far off by becoming a 5th grade teacher! Her answer to “what she wanted to be when she grew up” changed after two influential teachers entered her life in the 5th and 6th grades, Mr. Lee and Miss K. At the time, she was new to the school. She recalls that it was obvious that these two teachers loved what they did. They made school fun, made connections with their students, and were passionate educators! Ever since that time, she set her sights on teaching and never looked back.
She went to UW-Eau Claire for a Bachelor of Science in Education and, later, went to UW-La Crosse for her Masters of Education in Professional Development (ME-PD.) Her undergraduate major was elementary and middle school with a minor in language arts. She had her heart set on teaching grades 1 through 3. In an unexpected twist, she was placed as a student teacher in 7th grade at Altoona Middle School. She was surprised to find out how much she loved this age group!
She was offered the 8th grade history position at Altoona Middle School while she was doing her student teaching. Much to her surprise, and the surprise of everyone in her life, she accepted the position. You see, history was her least favorite subject while in school! At the time, the principal felt strongly it was better to have the right person that could connect with the kids in the position, and he took a chance on her that she would figure out how to teach history. She worked hard to make teaching, and learning history, fun and really enjoyed it. After a few years, she transferred to a position teaching 8th grade reading and English.
A few years later, the school district decided to make some major changes in structure by developing a 4th and 5th grade Intermediate School. The plan was to have 4th and 5th grade multi-aged classrooms so teachers and kids would be together for 2 years. She chose to transfer to AIS partly because her 8th grade position was being eliminated and partly because she was ready for a new challenge. She had realized that she couldn’t teach the same thing forever and was excited for this new chapter.
She recalls that she has never worked harder than during this time and also never questioned herself more as a teacher. They basically had to build the school from the ground up; creating everything from vision to systems to programs. The blended classroom was a blessing in some ways, particularly having more time to get to know the kids and their needs. However, the huge range of abilities between 4th and 5th grade was a challenge. Two years ago, it was determined that the 4th and 5th grades would need to be separated again, and Shalyn chose to stay with 5th grade. This is the 7th year since AIS was created, and Shalyn is very proud of the amazing team she works with. The staff at AIS are incredible teachers who work tirelessly to provide an excellent education for all students. They are in a really great spot and have been recently nominated as a National Blue Ribbon School, which is a prestigious award given to the top performing schools in the country.
A Teacher’s Take on Teaching
This will come as no surprise, especially all of you unexpectedly serving as the homeschool teacher, but teaching is definitely hard work. Teaching is exhausting during the school day and beyond. You never really walk away or take a break. However, teaching gives Shalyn energy, fills her soul, and she simply loves it. During the time of Act 10 when there was a lot of uncertainty in regard to the teaching profession, she did some soul-searching wondering if there was anything else she could or would like to do. The answer was simple; there was absolutely nothing else she can imagine doing other than teaching! If that isn’t the description of what it feels like to be living your passion and purpose, I don’t know what is, DreamChasers!
All things, no matter how perfectly designed they are for your life, have challenges or parts that you may not like so much. There have certainly been challenges along the way...some within her classroom walls like students who are broken requiring more patience and support than she can provide alone or struggling to meet the needs of all learners in her classroom. Some challenges extend beyond the walls of her classroom. Kids struggle, and during her first several years as a teacher, this reality would start to bring her down. She began to realize that she could choose to be negative, complain, and give up but that wouldn’t get her anywhere. Rather, she started to look for the good in situations, and this way of thinking has become a big part of her life. She decided she would do her very best to help her students, but that she alone could not do it all. She now understands that all these situations, good and bad, make us stronger.
School is Always In Session - Learning How to Live Her Best Life
Like most of us, finding balance is difficult. Shalyn reports that her husband reigns her in; he helps to ground her and provides her with gentle reminders that she simply can’t do it all. Shalyn encourages others to realize that we have to rely on others; we simply can’t do everything ourselves. Her principal is a huge advocate of her teachers taking care of themselves and their families first so that they have the energy to devote to their students.
Several years ago Shalyn read a book that literally changed her life, The Best Yes by Lysa TerKeurst. A very good friend of hers watched her frantically trying to meet the needs of everyone and living her life in fear of saying no. Shalyn reports that she was a pleaser and didn’t want to turn down any call for help or any social engagement. Now, she only says yes to things that give her purpose, things that fill her up, things that give her worth, and things that she enjoys. In line with this, she continuously checks in with how she is and where her time is going; are there things that can be let go?
She has also realized the importance of taking care of herself first, which is something new to her in the last few years. She gets up early in the morning and goes for a run or walk. She practices mindfulness. She surrounds herself with the most amazing women; people that lift her up and make her better. She says she has the best friends anyone could ever hope for! They focus on being positive, they laugh, they serve others; they are simply incredible, strong, successful women who are genuine. There is an old proverb that reads: “Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Shalyn says her friends encourage her to be her best self.
Although the Covid 19 pandemic has created a lot of stress, chaos, and sadness, Shalyn has found some amazing positive changes in her life. She has been given the gift of time with the people who matter most to her...her family. Shalyn admits that they are the ones who often get the worn out and tired Shalyn, whatever is leftover after she pours her heart into her students. She empathizes that there are people grieving normalcy and missing traditional milestone celebrations such as graduations, proms, and weddings. However, she is choosing to look at this as a welcome change, an opportunity to adjust our priorities, reconsider what we need, and create new traditions. This is a time to take care of others and look for the good happening all around us.
The State of Teaching Address We All Need to Hear
First and foremost, Shalyn encourages all of us to look for the good and choose kindness. In relation to teaching and the pandemic, giving up has never been an option for her. Instead, she has kept her thoughts around how to stay the course. This has allowed her and her colleagues to become more creative. And, some of these ideas might help serve their students in the future when regular schools can reconvene. She recognizes that the responses and attitudes are varied greatly across the state, and nation, depending on the district and community. Fortunately, the School District of Altoona is extremely positive and supportive of finishing strong. She encourages her colleagues to surround themselves and seek out the positive to keep their morale up. She encourages all of us to keep in mind that the kids are watching; in her case, her audience is both her own children and her students. She knows that if she stays positive and has an uplifted spirit, they will as well; and, if she gives up, so will they. We are all in this together, and we will persevere.
Shalyn is a fixer by nature; when she sees a problem or challenge, she wants to jump right in and fix it. What she has learned is that she can’t fix everything. However, she can be a bright light during a dark time in someone’s life, helping others and supporting them through tough times. She also used to be a worrier; she worried about EVERYTHING. So much of her energy throughout her years in college and even during her first several years teaching was spent on worrying. She worried about things that were out of her control and didn’t have the mindset to change her thinking. She called her mom every day, sometimes twice a day, because she was so worried about little things and things that she didn’t have control over. Grades, car problems, money troubles, not pleasing people...the list went on and on. She is incredibly grateful for her mom’s gentle guidance and continued support during those difficult years. Then, she became a parent and that's when worrying was no longer her focus. Instead, she chose to look for solutions or ways she could make situations better. Looking for happiness, goodness, and positivity brought light into her life. She realized that she couldn’t control most of the things she worried about, but she could control how she dealt with it. That’s exactly the mindset that we all need to adopt every day but especially right now!
Shalyn has so much wisdom and insight to pass along not only to her 5th graders but to all of us. Here are some final thoughts and favorite quotes that you might just want to make part of your life:
Shalyn wants all of us to participate in this life and stop being an observer. As Shalyn says, “I used to watch my kids play, standing safely on the sidelines...now, I jump in. I get on that trampoline, I walk the slack line, I jump off the rocks, I play...I am always up for the next adventure.” She made the decision to stop letting opportunities pass her by and to live her life with no regrets. Awesome advice from an inspiring soul!
Thanks, Shalyn, for sharing yourself with the SoulShine DreamChaser community. Keep on touching lives and influencing others through your example. Shine on!
Jackie White has been writing about life and its ups and downs for many years. With a degree in Industrial Psychology and a life-long student of personal development she is intrigued by how each individual chooses to live their life. Jackie feels strongly that truly living your best life is imperative to attaining peace and fulfillment. SoulShine was borne of her desire to inspire and teach others to live their best life. This is her mission and her dream.