Ailts fulfills lifelong dream by staying at homeWORTHINGTON — When Julie Ailts was in first grade, she knew she wanted to become a teacher.
By: Aaron Hagen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — When Julie Ailts was in first grade, she knew she wanted to become a teacher.
It’s only fitting she returned to teach the very same grade in her hometown.
“I remember going to Central and walking in for the back-to-school meeting and I was terrified,” Ailts said from her first-grade classroom at Prairie Elementary. “I did not want to go to school that day. I was scared. Then I walked into Mrs. (Yvonne) Sieve’s room and I can still remember those big, giant, blow-up crayons hanging from the ceiling, and there was a play area in one corner and chalkboards in another and these fun things. When I met her, I knew right away I wanted to be a teacher.”
The first-grade year was a turning point for Ailts.
“I hoped that first grade was going to be a fun year and it ended up being a great year, and she’s really the reason why,” Ailts said. “She was so good at what she did, and she made learning fun. That’s why I wanted to be a first-grade teacher because I remember the great experience I had in first grade. That’s really one of the building blocks, besides kindergarten, of your educational career. Mrs. Sieve had a big part in it.”
And from that young age, Ailts continued to show a love for teaching.
“I always played school and I never wanted to be the student, I always wanted to be the teacher,” she said. “It was always fun to play school and play house and I would say, ‘I’m the teacher, and I’m going to write on the chalkboard now.’”
After graduating from Worthington and attending Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., Ailts returned to teach alongside the same teacher who inspired her many years ago.
“Last year it was really different and kind of awkward,” Ailts said. “But I enjoy working with her. It’s actually a lot of fun. I like to learn a lot of different things from her and I can ask her, ‘How would you teach this?’ It’s nice to be able to work with her and to give back and say thank you for inspiring me to be a teacher.”
Ailts had thoughts of other professions, but she always came back to teaching. She had thought about physical therapy or nursing, but found out it wasn’t for her.
“When I job-shadowed in a hospital and I passed out, I knew that probably wasn’t the best job for me,” Ailts said.
Ailts graduated from Worthington High School in 2006.
“I really enjoyed growing up here. I think the diversity we have in this town is a major reason I am the person I am today,” she said. “It’s definitely a home-town feeling and you really get to know people in the public, which I liked. We just have a wonderful school district here. My parents were from Adrian and Rushmore, and Worthington was a central place. I loved growing up here because I was exposed to so many different things and had the opportunity to do a lot of different things.”
“I had many different cultures in my class alone. I got to know a wide variety of people and became accustomed to more than one culture,” she continued. “I got to see lots of different cultures, and I got to try things from other cultures. When I went to college, I felt I was more prepared for the real world. I got to see kind of a world in itself growing up here.”
Ailts was a three-sport athlete while in high school. She did cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring. She was also involved with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions).
After graduating from WHS, Ailts had a choice of colleges to attend.
“It came down to Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter and Augustana and when I went to visit Augie, it felt like home,” she said. “It was definitely an atmosphere I could see myself in. The professors there were amazing. I liked knowing that I was going to be known as a person and not a number. I appreciated the hominess you felt there. It was the best four years of my life. I wouldn’t change it, and I would go back there in a heartbeat. I’m definitely an ‘Augieholic’ and a Viking at heart.”
After graduating from Augustana, Ailts began looking for her first teaching job.
“I applied to many schools and I kept getting rejection letters that stated, ‘We gave the job to someone with experience,’” she said. “I saw where Worthington had openings and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try.’ They were willing to at least give me an interview. How do you get experience when you can’t even get an interview, let alone a job?”
Ailts was able to get interviews at Prairie with Principal Josh Noble.
“When I got the interview I was really excited because at least I’m getting an interview and I can get more experience with that,’” she said. “I ended up having three interviews here for three different positions in three days. When I was offered the first-grade position, I just knew. I had done a lot of my practicum experience and my student teaching and I loved first grade. Getting to teach with my first-grade teacher is an honor and pretty special.”
Ailts is now in her second year at Prairie.
“They were willing to take a chance with me and give me that opportunity,” she said. “It’s different being back because I don’t see myself yet as an equal to my colleagues. That was probably the hardest thing about coming back, ‘I’m no longer a student to them. I’m their equal.’ I’m still adjusting to that, but this year, I see myself as more comfortable. I don’t ever call them by their first name; I don’t feel proper doing that. But it is pretty special being able to teach with teachers I had growing up.”
Being able to work with some familiar faces — as well as new ones — has given Ailts many resources and avenues from which to learn.
“I love my first-grade co-workers,” she said. “They are a great group of women who are so phenomenal. They are willing to share ideas and help each other. If a child is not getting something, we always can talk at our meetings, ‘How can we help this child understand this?’ That’s one thing I really love about my co-workers — they are so willing to help. There are some younger teachers on this team and there are really experienced teachers, so it’s really nice to have such a wide variety. We can share new techniques with old techniques and really find a common ground.”
One of the best parts of being back in her hometown is the ability to give back to the community.
“Just being here and knowing I’m making a difference, but the main reason is just being able to say thank you and to give back for such a wonderful experience I had growing up here,” Ailts said.
Ailts’ parents, Larry and Laura, still live in Worthington, while brother Craig and sister-in-law Laura are both nurses in Rochester.
When she’s not in the classroom, Ailts likes working out and running, hanging out with her friends or attending both Worthington and Augustana sporting events. She also enjoys traveling, does after-school programs and teaches summer school.
And she still enjoys some of the same things she did while growing up in Worthington.
“I think one of my favorite things is King Turkey Day.” Ailts said. “That brings the community together. It’s such a fun time, too. The kids love when they get to see Paycheck run and they come back to school and you get to hear those stories. That just puts a smile on your face because kids are getting to see lots of different things.”
And as she becomes a veteran teacher in her hometown, Ailts is beginning to find her way within her classroom.
“I have a better understanding of teaching. Augustana was great and I loved my classes and my professors, but nothing prepares you for what you’re actually going to experience until you’re in your own classroom. You can go into someone else’s classroom during your student teaching and it’s totally different when you get into your own room.
“Last year was a learning year. I was learning right along with the students. They were teaching me things as I was teaching them things. This year I feel more confident in myself, my abilities and know I can do this. It’s what I love to do.”