2008 National Teacher of the Year: 'Every child is different and every day is different'
Crook County Middle School's Mike Geisen is named the 2008 National Teacher of the Year
Crook County Middle School teacher Michael Geisen, who has instilled a love of learning about the world and universe in his students, has been named the 2008 National Teacher of the Year.
This marks the first time in 35 years - the same year that Geisen was born - that an Oregon educator has received the honor.
The last time Oregon won this recognition was in 1973, when Jack Ensworth of Bend was the National Teacher of the Year. Geisen will be honored in ceremonies tomorrow morning at the White House, meeting President George W. Bush and receiving a crystal apple for what has been described as his innovative teaching style.
"Obviously I'm just tremendously honored and humbled by the award, but very thrilled for our school and for our whole community really to bring that home to central Oregon," Geisen said.
"I think it's long overdue," the science teacher continued. "There are thousands of inspiring teachers in Oregon and you know, for me to be the Oregon Teacher of the Year, much less the National Teacher of the Year - it's humbling to be in this position. Even just in our building and our district, there's so much great teaching that goes on every day."
District personnel found out the good news just after spring break. First, Geisen received the big call at home from Oregon State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo on March 13 and then CCMS Principal Rocky Miner told Crook County School District Superintendent Steve Swisher of the news.
"Well, I've known for over a month now," Geisen said. He paused, and then laughed.
"That's crazy," Geisen said. "My reaction was 'My God, what have I done?' That was my first reaction."
Swisher and others have been ecstatic about the news, with Swisher saying repeatedly that this will probably be the last time in CCSD employees' lives they will see a Crook County teacher honored as the National Teacher of the Year.
Swisher said the news was "just absolutely fantastic" not only for Geisen but in terms of all the "fine teaching" in the district.
"Mike epitomizes that - just the best role model possible," the superintendent said.
"I think this award is very symbolic in that, surely there are many teachers in the state and nation who are, I think of the same caliber," Swisher added.
"And he himself has said he did not believe he is the best teacher in the school district, or even his own school as well as in the state," the superintendent continued.
Swisher said of course Geisen is a great example of the excellent teachers throughout the nation.
"But it does put a shining light on Mike's great work as well as the school and the school district in the great job of educating our kids," Swisher emphasized.
At a crossroads
Geisen had started off considering forestry as a career, spending several months as a teaching assistant at the University of Washington's experimental forest.
"There I was again, standing on a deep, forested hillside, soaking wet from hours in the rain," he said in his national application materials. "I was on the edge of a chasm, a deep chasm of darkness and depression. But it hadn't always been this way. There were times when working countless hours in the drenching rain, thick brush and steep terrain were actually quite satisfying. Why was it different now?"
"For 12-14 hours a day, I designed and implemented exercises to teach forestry majors the field skills they needed to succeed, and spent hours in the forest helping them, guiding them and getting to know them."
Yet in recent years, he had been working alone.
Later, when his first child was only a couple of months old, he continued working as a forester and went back to school to earn his master's in teaching in 2001 from Southern Oregon University.
"But when I was hired in a rural district in central Oregon to teach middle school, I knew the real work was just beginning," Geisen continued. "Crook County has high rates of poverty, unemployment and one of the lowest percentages of college-educated adults in the state. The school district had a high dropout rate, low test scores and the middle school had been through five different principals in six years. Not only that, but who teaches middle school? You've got to be crazy to teach middle school!"
"Welcome to my new life," Geisen said. "I love it."
Still a `normal guy'
One of the goals Crook County schools have set is for teachers to establish relationships with their students - to see the student not as a number but as a curious, fellow human being.
Geisen is known not only for making connections with students, but for his compassion and sense of humor.
Although he has been honored as the 2008 National Teacher of the Year, the science teacher still tries to have a "normal guy" appearance. Since winning at the national level, he now has a suit. Yet he still packs his own lunch, which seventh-grader John Chandler still reminds him to eat.
"He's still my lunch reminder," Geisen said, smiling. On one occasion, the teacher was trying to finish his lunch as his seventh-graders came in. Many of his students come to class to eat their lunch, play the guitar and visit with their special teacher.
"So now just about every day, when he comes in, he says, 'Eat your lunch.' Most days I haven't started yet, so it's very helpful," the teacher said.
Learning from role models
Teachers are thought of as professionals and as such, like lawyers, police officers, journalists and others, having a mentor is critical to their success.
Before he started as a teacher, Geisen had his own set of role models.
One such man is Bob Bath, who teaches science at North Middle School in Grants Pass.
"I think I really learned that there's not one way to teach kids, that kids learn in multiple ways and that a hands-on approach to science is most effective," Geisen explained. "I think to be a little bit goofy, a little bit crazy helps and to have a lot of energy. With kids around, you are the deciding factor. He was, and when you came into the `Bathroom' as he called it, you couldn't help but be involved."
Another mentor was Mark Watson, who worked as a science teacher at Grants Pass High School. Watson now serves as an administrator in the Springfield/Eugene area.
"I think the one comment that really stuck with me from him is that 10 to 20 years from now, kids are not going to remember every detail of your class, but they are going to remember what kind of teacher you were and how you treated them, and that relations with students need to come first," the CCMS teacher said.
On the road
Geisen, or Mr. G. as he is affectionately known by some at CCMS, has been one busy teacher in recent weeks, including making several speaking engagements.
Superintendent Swisher said Geisen is "already scheduled for 158 speaking engagements."
"One hundred and fifty eight ... so far," Swisher added.
"There's already a two-week speaking engagement in Japan," the superintendent continued.
This summer and for the 2008-2009 school year, Geisen will be able to come back home to central Oregon each week for a day or two other than his stay in Japan and then head to other speaking engagements.
In the meantime, Associate Superintendent of Instruction Lora Nordquist said a temporary replacement teacher will teach Geisen's classes.
Swisher said the Oregon Department of Education, the Crook County School District, and business partners in the state and around the nation will cooperate to defray Geisen's costs.
Swisher said a temporary teacher will come in, but the Department of Education and business partners will cover those salary costs. Travel costs are covered by business partners through the National Teacher of the Year program.
The Oregon Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by Intel Corporation. Intel will be helping to cover Geisen's salary and provide him with a laptop computer and Blackberry during the coming school year.
Geisen's advice to new teachers
The future is bright, but challenging for those new to teaching as a career.
"I think new teachers - they have huge challenges ahead of them in terms of the climate they are heading into," he said. "And what I mean by that is that education as a whole seems to be more focused on a single output, which is test scores, which are a very narrow definition of learning and intelligence. What I think new teachers need to do is to teach creatively and to focus on the whole child as opposed to just a small part of their brain. That can be very hard to do because of the pressures to conform, because of the tradition of teaching - 'This is how you do it.'"
"I think having the courage to step out and be yourself and having fun with the kids and teach in innovative ways and know that when you do that, the test scores will follow," Geisen emphasized. "But kids need to enjoy school. If kids don't enjoy being there, then you really haven't succeeded as a teacher. You may have imparted some basic knowledge, but you haven't created someone who will continue to learn on their own. When kids go home or when they go home for the school year, do they have curiosity about the world?"
When the science teacher was honored as Oregon Teacher of the Year in October, his students "were just ecstatic."
"They were as excited as I was or probably more than I was," he said of the October awards ceremony.
"I guess their voices aren't heard as often as they should be and I guess they are excited," Geisen said of his students. "I see them as fellow human beings. And so it's not really about me winning. It's about what's going to be good for them and for other kids in the future."
Geisen continues to show compassion for students in his challenging career.
"Being a teacher is a great honor. However, it is also extremely demanding," Geisen concluded. "Every child is different and every day is different. That's what makes teaching so captivating and challenging. That's what gets me out of bed every morning and why I sleep so soundly every night."