Petersen Named Teacher of the Year Finalist
Valley Southwoods Freshman High School teacher Wade Petersen showed up to his 2016 Iowa Teacher of the Year interview dressed as 19th-century French leader Napoleon Bonaparte.
Given five minutes to introduce himself and encouraged to think outside the box, Petersen decided to bring a bit of his classroom to the Department of Education’s offices. Department employees who saw him waiting in the lobby stopped to take photos with him.
“It’s the same anytime you wear the costume,” he said.
Valley Southwoods Principal Mitch Kuhnert supported the attention-grabbing approach to the interview because it represents who Petersen is as a teacher.
“He understands that being a teacher, you have to have the entertainment value,” Kuhnert said. “It’s not unusual to find Wade in a full costume to introduce a unit or do a reading.”
It is all part of what Petersen calls the art and science of teaching.
“No matter how tech-y you can be, there’s still an art to being in the classroom, being the person you are,” Petersen said.
The art of being Petersen seems to be balancing creativity and structure. He teaches language arts and French at Valley Southwoods, and uses original games, music, and elaborate displays in both classes. He also sends out monthly calendars outlining these activities. Students and their families know exactly what they will do each day in his class, and they are eager to take part.
“It really fits today’s type of learner because it’s so fast-paced and engaging,” said Pat Trotter, a district classroom associate and former teacher. “Everyone wants to be involved.”
Trotter nominated Petersen for the Teacher of the Year award after attending his classes with a special education student. Petersen will be honored at a luncheon with the governor in March, along with the other finalists and the 2016 Iowa Teacher of the Year, Scott Slechta of Fairfield.
Trotter was impressed with Petersen’s Hero’s Journey language arts unit. To connect the ancient Greek epic poem “The Odyssey” to modern day stories, each Valley Southwoods language arts teacher chooses a film that demonstrates the Hero’s Journey. A longtime comic book fan, Petersen uses “Batman Begins.”
“‘Batman Begins’ fits perfectly,” he said. “When (students) know they get to talk about Batman and it connects to their learning, I see the little spark in their eye.”
The French unit on history and culture is the most well-known in his foreign language classes. This unit is when Petersen usually unveils the Napoleon garb. In costume, Petersen tells classes they will compete against each other and work to “conquer my beloved France.” Their competition is in the form of a game Petersen designed: The Battle of France, based on the real-life board game Risk.
The two units are some of Petersen’s most elaborate, but he uses smaller-scale games to keep his day-to-day classes fresh. To him, doing something different in class every day it the best way to keep students interested.
“I think, at its essence, it’s just the variety,” he said. “It breaks up the normal class. Learning has to be first. You look for fun ways to support the learning.”
Petersen credits his time as a camp counselor with his ability to come up with fun activities that serve a purpose. Now his classes are an inspiration to others.
“When you enter his classroom, it’s almost like walking into another world,” Kuhnert said. “He pushes other educators to support that kind of environment for the students.”
Kuhnert calls Petersen a “phenomenal resource” for Valley Southwoods, and Trotter recommends that all teachers watch him at work. He is a popular demonstration teacher in the district and has published several books on teaching in the past 19 years. He regularly gets emails from teachers across the nation saying his activities sparked excitement in their classes.
While Petersen appreciates those emails, his favorite messages are from former students. Often, they’ll reminisce about making crepes in class or cracking eggs over his head as part of his Mardi Gras celebrations. Such activities can be intimidating, even after 29 years of teaching, but Petersen says engaging his students is worth it.
“Not only am I teaching, but I’m creating memories for my students,” he said.