Students cheered and stomped their feet on gymnasium bleachers as Dylan Huisken, a sixth- through eighth-grade social studies teacher at Bonner School, accepted Montana’s 2019 Teacher of the Year award on Thursday.
Students gathered in the morning for the assembly where state schools Superintendent Elsie Arntzen presented the award, in the form of a Montana-shaped plaque, to Huisken.
“It’s exciting to have a leader in middle school,” Arntzen said. “It’s such a transitional period when kids are going through so much change and it’s great to highlight someone in that position.”
Teachers and students danced to the song “Happy” while they waited for the assembly to start. Arntzen addressed the crowd and explained why they chose Huisken for the award.
“What this Montana Teacher of the Year does is he says that this can be a school building and you can learn, but you can learn outside that building,” she said. “You don’t have to be confined to a schoolroom to learn and you’re not confined to a book to learn.”
Huisken incorporates lessons into outdoor activities whenever he can. Last Friday, he took sixth-graders to excavate artifacts and fossils near the school playground as part of their lesson on archaeology, which leads into a unit about prehistory.
Huisken's social studies classes mostly focus on history but also incorporate geography. Sixth-graders start with ancient civilizations, seventh-graders study the medieval times throughout the world, and eighth-graders learn about American history and U.S. government.
“I have them for three years in a row,” Huisken said. “My biggest goal is for them to walk away from my class liking history, or loving it even. I want them to not view this subject as, ‘That’s just a subject you have to read about in a boring book.’”
More broadly, Huisken said he wants to inspire students to be lifelong learners. “I want to empower them with the tools to take to any class and realize that it’s not boring, that it’s beneficial. That if they apply themselves a certain way, if they see it a certain way, if they shift their perspective a certain way, if they have the right mindset, that it’s actually incredibly empowering and incredibly interesting.”
Huisken said he also uses social studies as a vehicle to build character in students. He encourages students to think about other points of view, to analyze other people and to analyze what it means to be a human being.
Arntzen said that the Office of Public Instruction wanted to choose a teacher who encapsulates the state’s culture, the middle school years and the transitory period in students' lives from childhood to the teenage years. They wanted someone who personalizes lessons to engage kids. That’s something Huisken knows how to do, she said.
Huisken was one of three finalists who were interviewed by a committee for the award. Linda Rost of Baker and Matt Schrowe of Red Lodge were also interviewed by the committee, which was made up of representatives from the Montana PTA, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education, the Legislature, a student representative and the offices of the governor, attorney general, and Montana’s senior U.S. senator.
The Teacher of the Year award comes with perks, as well as responsibilities. Later this year, Huisken will travel to Washington, D.C., to represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year event, where he will compete against other teachers for the national title.
He will also attend leadership conferences and share his teaching expertise with education officials and have a voice in state and national policy discussions. Additionally, Arntzen said Huisken will help her devise a school safety model, as well as new social studies standards that she hopes to have in place by 2021.
“Mr. Huisken is one of many great teachers,” Bonner superintendent Jim Howard said. “We are so fortunate at Bonner School and it was other teachers who recognized Mr. Huisken and his leadership and recognized that he’s very good at what he does.”
Huisken said that receiving the award is an incredible honor, but it still feels surreal. “This was never something I was shooting for,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a huge shift in the way I think about my career. I’m here for this school. I’m here for students.”
At some point, Bonner will need to find a substitute to take over Huisken’s class while he’s traveling. But for now, Huisken said little is changing.
“I’m just going to get up and go to work like I always do," he said. "Like, I still got up this morning and set up my classroom and picked trash up off the floor and dusted a bookshelf and got my PowerPoints ready.”