The world is her classroom

Teacher of the year inspires, challenges students

Margaret Holtschlag
Michigan Teacher of the Year for 1999-2000 Margaret Holtschlag poses in the Oval Office with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley (left) and President Bill Clinton.

It's easy to become so focused on what needs changing in U.S. education that one misses the good news: that there are teachers out there who not only are good at what they do, but are themselves questioners and learners, excited about the world and excited to tell their students about it.

One of those teachers is Margartet Holtschlag, who has taught at public Murphy Elementary School in Haslett for 11 years and was named Teacher of the Year for the 1999-2000 school year by the Michigan Department of Education. Bestowed since 1980, the award for the first time carried extra prestige: As winner of the award, Holtschlag has been touring Michigan schools on paid leave as head of the department's "education improvement team."

"When parents learned that Margaret was to be named Teacher of the Year they were happy for her recognition, but were displeased she would not be teaching their children that year," says Sherren Jones, Haslett assistant school superintendent.

As well they should have been. From teaching cleanliness by taking her students to the local Subway sandwich shop to teaching geology in gypsum mines near Grand Rapids to spending a week of school days at the state historical museum in Lansing, Holtschlag uses the real world as her classroom.

"A good teacher will find many good ways for her students to learn," says Holtschlag, also a finalist for National Teacher of the Year 2000. The middle child of 12 siblings growing up on the south side of Chicago, she says, "I think I had always wanted to be a teacher, which started with doing stuff with my younger brothers and sisters."

Several years ago, she took her pupils to the Michigan History Museum in Lansing, but it turned out to be a dissatisfying experience. "We had a limited amount of time, and we went through it as quickly as can be," Holtschlag says. "I realized I was teaching them the wrong way."

So she developed a program she calls, "One Big History Lesson," in which pupils show up at the museum for five consecutive days and encounter creative lesson plans that combine artifacts, guest speakers, teachers and hands-on learning, all in a museum-rich classroom setting.

Holtschlag has expanded her museum program to include teachers and their third- through fifth-grade classes from Haslett, Okemos, Lansing, Waverly, Laingsburg, Holt, and Charlotte school districts.

She recalls one boy's experience learning about women's suffrage, which was enacted with the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920. "He had found a 1920 voting ballot, and he wanted to donate it to the museum's archives. It was a pretty exceptional document. He put it in a box and wrote a speech. And on the day his class went to the museum's archives to learn about history and maps, he made his formal presentation to the museum."

Another teacher used the museum's lumber gallery as a life-sized visual aid for geometry lessons. It captured the children's imaginations and made it easier for them to learn geometry.

Another of Holtschlag's passions is international cross-cultural education. While teaching at Haslett, she became one of the founding members of Linking All Types of Teachers to International Cross-cultural Education (LATTICE).

LATTICE is made up of educators from several school districts, along with international students and professors from Michigan State University. They meet monthly to discuss all kinds of issues. Jones says Holtschlag would frequently bring international students into her classroom.

Jones praised her star teacher for the unpaid time and energy she invested in planning a trip to South Korea for her pupils and for other class-related trips and projects. That's just the kind of teacher she is, Tom Lepo, principal at Murphy Elementary School, says.

Holtschlag says the past year "has been a thriller. It still overwhelms me. This is one of the greatest professions."

While Holtschlag isn't sure what she will do when her term as Teacher of the Year ends this summer, the museum would like to keep the momentum of the "One Big History Lesson" going. "What I'm hoping is that I could be on loan to them," she says.

The museum's gain would be Murphy Elementary's loss. "When you go to her class it's a community," Jones says. "It's like when you're invited to someone's home. Her students will get up and greet you and make you feel welcome. There's a waiting list to be in her class. She is really very, very special."