SHERIDAN — Sheridan’s own Milton “Mick” Wiest, language arts teacher at Fort Mackenzie High School and 2014 Wyoming State Teacher of the Year, returned Friday night from a week of honor and work in Washington, D.C., in which he met several influential educators, legislators and humanitarians, including President Barack Obama.
At the surface, the purpose of the trip was to be honored as Teacher of the Year along with each of the title winners from across the nation and to attend the National Teacher of the Year ceremony, which was held Thursday.
However, the busy week also offered a chance for the voices of the educators — and the students and communities they represent — to be heard on a national level while the teachers absorbed all the resources our nation’s capital has to offer.
The many activities Wiest participated in included a reception at Vice President Joe Biden’s private residence, a black tie gala at the United States Institute of Peace, a national news press conference, a visit to the oval office, a work session at the Department of Education and a curator guided look at the Smithsonian Institution, all while networking with and learning from more than 50 of the country’s finest educators.
Wiest and the others visited the world’s largest museum and research complex which includes 19 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoological Park.
Here they were given tours of some of the top exhibits and were able to pick a museum or topic of personal interest to see on a deeper level via a private tour led by the curator or assistant curator of that section.
Wiest said the tours were focused on unique programs and resources available and discussions were held on how to integrate or utilize these resources in each of the teachers’ local communities.
One resource in particular Wiest said “could apply to any school at any level here in Sheridan, but specifically Fort Mackenzie.”
The Institution offers a program where students can sign up to design education projects in conjunction with curators at the Smithsonian.
The students then have to do the research and experimentation on their own and present their work to SI to be scored and to receive tips for improvements. They send the project back and forth and collaborate all along using the Institution’s experts and resources to perfect their project.
“The reason I think it would be great at my school is we are contemplating a change to the way we teach and the way we provide instruction, looking at instituting something more internship-based or project-based and I can see how this would fit in perfectly with that,” Wiest said. “I wasn’t even aware of the tremendous information and presentations at the Smithsonian and some you can get online. There are some really amazing ways in which we can use ‘the Smith’ locally.”
Department of Education
Wiest and the other honorees attended work sessions at the Department of Education where they were afforded the opportunity to speak to department heads and key national policy makers regarding a variety of pertinent education topics.
“What was really cool is that out of the 50 or so teachers that were there, I imagine there was time for only 14 or 15 of us to make requests and recommendations and I got to do so,” Wiest said.
Wiest was seated next to Special Assistant to the President on Domestic Policy Roberto Rodriguez, who led the listening session and was between Wiest and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz. The session was also attended by the Secretary of DOE Arne Duncan and the Chief of the Education Branch, Office of Management and Budget, Mary Cassell.
Wiest took the opportunity to speak to two issues he sees Sheridan struggling with locally and expanded the issue to show its national impact.
His concerns were regarding the graduation rate calculations and the recruitment of teachers to fill the gaps schools nationwide are expected to face in the coming years.
“They were just amazing,” he said. “That was a lot of fun, doing the policy work and having people who make the decisions listen so intently and take notes and such.”
Making the rounds
Wiest and the others were given a tour of the White House and introduced to President Obama.
He said that though it is obviously an honor to meet the president what was really significant to him was simply being in the White House.
“I think I was more impacted going from room to room and seeing the portraits and artwork of each of the presidents, being in all the different places that you see on TV and looking out over the rose garden,” he said. “All the history that was there, that was what was so special to me.”
Immediately after meeting the president the group was escorted to “Pebble Beach,” the nickname for the White House North Lawn area that is covered with gravel, where television correspondents from across the nation gather daily for interviews.
Each of the honorees stood at the podium together but only a handful answered a question for the myriad national news agencies present and again Wiest was asked to speak.
He was asked what his reaction or opinion was to the Common Core State Standards, a set of college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics which has received a mixed and often controversial response from the public.
“I said my opinion, and I believe the opinion of every teacher there, was that we approve of them,” Wiest said. “It was great to have some continuity from grade-to-grade and state-to-state. They are also good because they upped the bar a bit in terms of our previous states standards and if we’re going to be competitive globally we need to raise that bar. Another thing I reminded them of is that a lot of people misunderstandingly believed the Common Core is the curriculum and it’s not, it’s just the guidelines. Local school board control and state school board and educator control over the curriculum is still there and I think that’s something a lot of people misunderstand.”
Wiest said that in spite of all the fun and cool things he was able to do the thing that impacted him the most is what he gained by associating with the other outstanding teachers present.
“To be around people who are so bright and energetic and enthusiastic about education, that will stick with me,” he said. “It’s the second time I’ve spent a week with these people and I’ve never heard a single complaint but just overwhelming positive talk about their kids and the subjects they teach. You have teachers from all subjects and age levels and yet all of them have such a strong grip on what it means to be a good teacher and give positive instruction.”
Wiest will be returning to D.C. in June specifically for a work session, sponsored by the Educational Council of America, to work on issues facing education nationally and give recommendations.
A week after that he will be in Alabama visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and future events will include a national teacher conference in July, a training session in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a visit to Princeton and local appearances like performing the keynote speech at the State Social Studies Conference in Casper.
Wiest said a lot of people tend to wonder who pays for all the trips he is taking around the country and said it is important to note that only a small portion is paid for by the State Department of Education and the vast majority is covered by private corporations who act as sponsors of the Chief Council of State School Officers, which orchestrates the Teacher of the Year Program.