Most career teachers may never realize the impact they’ve made during their years in the classroom, but Wes Schmidt-Tieszen has achieved at least one affirmation that will be both public and enduring.
Last week, the veteran social studies teacher at Goessel High School learned he has been selected for the 2016 class of inductees to the Kansas Teachers’ Hall of Fame based in Dodge City.
His first response when he heard the news?
“Probably disbelief more than anything,” Schmidt-Tieszen said. “I’m not sure that it has completely sunk in, but it feels pretty overwhelming and humbling.
“I think of all the thousands of teachers who are outstanding teachers, I would be remiss in saying that I feel I deserve it more than them.”
Schmidt-Tieszen said he was aware that Superintendent John Fast had nominated him for the honor. As part of the evaluation process, Schmidt-Tieszen was asked to supply the selection committee with a variety of information about his teaching career.
“I really didn’t have any inkling that I would get it,” he said. “I have a superintendent who made the nomination, so I am very honored to get the award.”
Fast and Schmidt-Tieszen have worked together for 20 of the 27 years Schmidt-Tieszen has been on the faculty.
“When I saw they were soliciting nominations, I knew we needed to submit his name,” Fast said. “References and testimonials were gathered from administration, fellow faculty members, parents and several students. The responses were all extremely supportive.”
Path to teaching
Public school teaching wasn’t the career field Schmidt-Tieszen thought he was headed for when the Aberdeen, Idaho, native graduated from Bethel College in 1976 with a social work degree.
He certainly didn’t envision himself teaching high school social studies.
“There were times when I thought it would be fun to be a teacher,” Schmidt-Tieszen said. “But I did not have good social studies teachers when I was in high school.
“To tell you the truth, I just disliked social studies. It was mostly we’d walk in, we’d read out of the textbook, we’d do worksheets—and that was the extent of it.”
Right after graduation, he his and Bethel classmate, Ada, were married, then headed for Denver, Colo., for a stint with Mennonite Voluntary Service.
“My assignment was to be a counselor/teacher at a private alternative school for students who had been kicked out, or dropped out, of the public schools,” he said. “It was in a poor hispanic community, and so I did that for two years.
“That contact with teaching, even though I wasn’t a trained teacher, kind of inspired me that maybe this is what I’d like to do.”
When he completed his MVS commitment, Schmidt-Tieszen drove a taxi cab for two to three years, then enrolled at the University of Colorado at Denver to earn a teaching certificate.
He taught high school in a Denver suburb for 21⁄2 years before the couple moved back to North Newton, where Ada began teaching social work at their college alma mater.
“We had our first child just as she was starting school, so I stayed home full time with my daughter, and substitute-taught for a couple of years, then started teaching here at Goessel in 1988,” he said.
Whether it was a reaction to his bad experience as a high school social studies student, Schmidt-Tieszen has set a different course as a social studies teacher.
“I like to do things that are a little more interactive,” he said. “I will do simulations, role plays, games and I will dress up in character.
“We do lots of debates and class discussions on issues—so they have to obviously prepare and use data to support their positions. I try to get them involved as much as possible.
“There’s seldom a day that they’re just sitting and reading and doing worksheets,” he added.
His historical characterization seem to be a student favorite. Schmidt-Tieszen has portrayed Socrates, Martin Luther, President Teddy Roosevelt—and even Princess Kaiulani, heir to throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 1800s.
The latter two characters are among the five he takes on during a single class period when studying that era of U.S. history.
“I’ll come in for 10 minutes and perform, step outside, make a quick change, put on a dress—it gets kind of crazy sometimes,” he said with a chuckle. “But those kind of things draw them in, and then we can try to tie that in to what’s happening in the world today.”
Schmidt-Tieszen said the rise of new technology and social media have changed not only teaching methods, but also students.
“In social studies I like to make things relevant, and it’s important for them to understand what is going on in the world, so I try to tie-in current events,” he said.
“I think over the last years, I’ve got kids who do a good job of knowing what’s going on in the world, but I would say there is less of that now than when I started teaching.
“The interesting thing is that we have 24/7 access to what’s going on in the world, and yet, probably because students always have something plugged into their ear, they can choose what they are going to listen to. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, if you listened to the radio, there’d always be spots where there’d be a bit of news.”
Outside the classroom
Beyond the classroom, Schmidt-Tieszen has been sponsor of the Scholars Bowl team for the past 10 years. Goessel’s team has qualified for state 13 of the past 14 years.
Over the past four years, the team has placed third twice, won the title last year and placed fourth this year.
“We’ve got a good run at this point,” Schmidt-Tieszen said. “We have 24 (students) out this year. Normally, we have 19 to 22. I think that says something about the community and its support for academics.”
Schmidt-Tieszen said community’s backing has been invaluable.
“I have been fortunate to teach in a district that has been tremendously supportive of their teachers—the community, parents, administrators have all been supportive. They have pretty well let me do what I feel needs to be done in the social studies classroom.
“In a lot of school district, you do not have that.”
State of education
As he prepares to retire at the end of this school year, Schmidt-Tieszen said he hasn’t felt that same level of trust and support from state leaders, as exemplified in the heavy emphasis on state assessments in recent years.
“There seems to be a lack of trust in what teachers are doing—that we are professional, we are trained,” he said. “It seems we have more and more people saying ‘this what you have to do’—more of a micro-managing type of thing.”
Reductions in state funding are another signal.
“I’m not sure the respect for teachers and educators is what it used to be,” he said. “I believe there is an element in society at least that seems to degrade what teachers are doing.
“I go to social studies conferences every year and it’s amazing for me to find out what’s happening in the classroom. I just feel like some of the decision-making, and what teachers would deem best, is being taken out of our hands.”
When he does step away from USD 411, Schmidt-Tieszen wants to find other ways to benefit people.
“I want to take the next year and kind of look around and explore if there’s something to get back into a helping profession,” he said.
“My wife teaches social work at Bethel College, and so I would never say I am a social worker—you have to be trained and it takes a license to be one. But there are jobs out there working with disadvantaged.
“I think I’m ready for a change and want try something else for a while I’m still young enough. There may be some other things I would like to dabble in.”