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Get Your Hands on Your Future
Ian Billings noticed two children on the playground who were not getting along. He rushed over to them. At 6-foot-1, he towered over the 2-year-olds but dropped to his knees and gently separated them while adding a few kind words of instruction.
A little later, he watched over a group of children as they climbed on playground equipment, he tied a child’s shoe and then took two smiling boys for a ride on a wagon.
Billings was in control and at ease working with young children at the University of Wisconsin-Stout Child and Family Study Center. The scenes conjured up images of lead actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990 movie “Kindergarten Cop.”
“To be able to help and guide children, it’s very rewarding,” Billings said, as he talked on the playground.
He spent eight weeks at the center’s Infant and Toddler Lab this spring as a student teacher while finishing his coursework. He graduated May 12 from UW-Stout with a degree in early childhood education.
Come fall he hopes to be teaching children full time in elementary school.
As he searches for a job, his gender certainly can’t hurt his prospects. Male teachers in early childhood education still aren’t the norm. According to 2011-12 National Education Association statistics, just 16.2 percent of elementary school teachers in the U.S. are men; in Wisconsin it’s 21.5 percent. Early childhood education has been a female-dominated profession for generations.
“Young children need positive male role models in their lives while in school, beginning in preschool programs,” said Jill Klefstad, an associate professor in the School of Education at UW-Stout and the early childhood program director. “The early years are critical in the development of young children, and they benefit from being taught by male teachers.”
Billings, who grew up in Loyal, said he never had a male teacher until he reached middle school.
He had some special female teachers to model after, however. His mother is a fifth-grade teacher in Loyal and his grandmother and an aunt also taught elementary school. His older sister and her husband teach at Marshfield Columbus High School.
Teaching seemed to be in his calling even before he enrolled at UW-Stout. When he was a student at Loyal High School, Billings volunteered to help third-graders with science. While on the varsity football team, he enjoyed mentoring younger players, he said.
Billings originally went to UW-Milwaukee to study architecture but “teaching was in the back of my mind.” He switched majors after one year and transferred to UW-Stout another year later.
Although he seldom had more than two other men in his early childhood classes at UW-Stout, he said everyone from the teachers and administrators to fellow students welcomed and encouraged him.
His cooperating teacher at the Infant and Toddler Lab, Jamie Lynch, is impressed with Billings’ personal and professional skills. “He has a very kind and caring manner. I’ve seen children drawn to him from day one, and the parents love him. His drive takes him a step beyond. He’ll shine,” Lynch said.
Lynch also noted Billings’ artistic and creative skills. She pointed out a large piece of fish artwork, the individual scales of which were colored by toddlers. It was one of many such projects Billings coordinated at the lab.
While at UW-Stout, he helped the university win two Rube Goldberg Machine Contest national collegiate championships, worked as a guide for two years at the outdoor Challenge Course and volunteered at a summer camp in southern Wisconsin for inner city youth.
Lynch and Klefstad said Billings has a knack for understanding child development; he is able to “adapt lessons appropriate to their needs and abilities,” Klefstad said.
Billings believes his strengths as a teacher are in his strong work ethic, creativity, ability to engage students and calm demeanor. He likes early childhood education because he can teach students all subjects, as opposed to having to specialize in one subject at the middle or high school levels.
“Kids soak things up. Everything you do is modeling for them,” he added. “I really enjoy the younger age — the energy they bring to school.”
He also is excited about the potential of working with new technology, such as the iPad and interactive whiteboards, in the classroom. “We’re just starting to tap the potential of technology in school, and it adds a level of interactivity that wasn’t there before,” he said. “This is big in the UW-Stout program now.
In addition to the Infant and Toddler Lab, he worked with second-graders at Wakanda School in Menomonie from January to March and finishes his student teaching this summer in a kindergarten prep program at Parkview School in Chippewa Falls.
With his degree from UW-Stout, Billings is licensed to teach children up to age 8, or third grade. He plans to obtain his Middle Childhood Certification through UW-Stout and be certified to teach through sixth grade.
Billings met his fiancée, Gracie Bowen, of Alma Center, at UW-Stout. She will graduate in December with a master’s degree in school counseling. “It would be cool to work in the same school (with her) someday,” he said.
Early childhood education is a longstanding program at UW-Stout. Its origins on campus date to about 1900. For more information on the program, click here.