MVHS history teacher gets surprise honor
Jada Kohlmeier said she still doesn't know why she was recognized with a Milken National Educator Award last Wednesday.
"It's a mystery," the Mill Valley High School social studies teacher said. "I'm just trying to keep up with our faculty. They work just as hard as I do.
"That's the neat thing about the award. They don't tell you why. They keep saying, 'You don't find us; we'll find you.'"
The 31-year-old Kohlmeier was surprised with the award, and the $25,000 that came with it, at a school assembly that featured Kansas First Lady Linda Graves, former NFL great Rosie Grier and Lowell Milken of the Milken Family Foundation.
If Kohlmeier is mystified over her selection, students in her freshman world studies class aren't.
"She's an awesome teacher," Maggie Grenminger said. "If you get an assignment in late, you don't just get a zero on your report card. She still wants you to learn something and leave the class with something to show for it."
Students Chase Elliott and Kendra Corley said Kohlmeier makes the study of history interesting through the use of the Internet, videos, music and dance.
The Milken Family Foundation Web site noted Kohlmeier's use of such non-traditional elements in courses she helped design and implement at Mill Valley. The courses integrate social science curriculum with literature and English. The site also praised her work within the district to develop block scheduling and staff training and her trips to Ghana and Russia to share teaching methods.
Her methods are designed to get students to think about history as something that occurred to real people and not as a dry list of facts, Kohlmeier said.
"History happened because people of that time period made difficult choices," she said. "They made those tough choices while they struggled with others, helped each other and loved one another."
Examining those personal choices helps students understand the importance of the subject matter and makes it relevant to today's headlines, Kohlmeier said.
"To me, history is about asking essential questions," she said. "Do we have a true democracy? Is there ever a just war? What do we need to know versus our concerns for national security?
"How does a past situation relate to our situation today? It's definitely intended to become an investigative detective type thing."
She is successful when students ask her questions and leave her classroom with a lifelong appetite for learning, Kohlmeier said.
"There are different views on how to teach history," she said. "One way is to see it as heritage transmission. You learn and remember things that make you proud to be a citizen of a great country.
"The other idea is that a true citizen is someone who thinks independently. You appreciate our accomplishments, but understand our failures at the same time.
"I tend to be in the second camp."
Kohlmeier said she learned the positive rewards of teaching from her father, Marvin Kohlmeier, a physical education teacher and former coach in the Sabetha school district.
"I saw the satisfaction and rewards he got from teaching and from his basketball teams," she said. "He taught me a lot about working hard and the possibilities that would open for me."
She received her undergraduate degree in history from Kansas State University and earned her masters and teaching certification from Washington University in St. Louis. She started her teaching career with a four-year stint in Concordia. She taught at De Soto High School for one year, before moving to Mill Valley with the opening of that school last fall.
"I hated to leave Concordia," she said. "The first few years of teaching you're really just a sponge. I had a number of really wonderful mentor teachers there.
"I really only left because I wanted to be closer to K.U. De Soto had an opening when I started to look. I like teaching in smaller schools. De Soto has those, but I liked its openness to creative and innovative ways of teaching."
She started working on her doctorate to make herself a better teacher. But she admits it will open up new opportunities.
"I really love teaching in high school," she said. "But if a dream job at a university came up, I'd look at it. If I could teach methods to future teachers so they could reach more students that would be the best of both worlds.
"I'm in no hurry to leave. I look forward to coming to work everyday"
In that, Kohlmeier said she is like most of her teaching peers, which makes the attention that came with the Milken Foundation award somewhat embarrassing. She said she would try to address that by channeling the recognition into advocacy for teaching and public education.
"If that could happen, that would be the best gift I could offer to a profession that has given me so much."