Rocky Run Middle School teacher Jamie Sawatzky was officially named Virginia History Teacher of the Year on June 8th. Sawatzky has been at the school for six years, and although his work has been commended within the school's walls, it was not until this year that he was formally recognized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Preserve America.
"I was thrilled to be nominated — to be recognized as a teacher in Fairfax County who does interesting things," said Sawatzky.
IN A FEW SHORT years, Sawatzky has garnered a reputation for his original teaching methods — the most noted technique being World War II Day, where he invited some 50 veterans and civilians to talk with the students and answer questions.
Using Socratic seminars, Sawatzky is able to impart an interactive theme to his classes. "He connects real-life examples and simulations and brings history to life for the students," says Principal Dan Parris.
Sawatzky holds the opinion that interaction is key in successful teaching. An experience he had at age 13 inspired him to take this engaging approach to teaching. "I was at dinner with a Holocaust survivor, and that just stuck with me," he recalls. "To have this person at my table, answering my questions — the importance of eye contact, feeling involved in history." To be named Virginia History Teacher of the Year, it is not enough to simply love your subject, you must find a way to relay that love of the subject to the students in such a way as to hold their attention. Sawatzky puts it best himself — "If the kids are bored, I'm bored."
Sawatzky's passion for history has been a lifelong affair. As a child, he traveled with his parents, both ministers, to religious sites throughout the world. "I went on a trip to Israel and Egypt," he says. "We went to the Holy Lands, and I was just interested in the history of those places." In addition to exposing him to the travels that became a motivating factor in his decision to teach history, Sawatzky's parents had a hand in steering him towards the teaching profession in the first place. "They always taught me it was important to serve your community, and my route to doing that is through teaching," Sawatzky says.
His lighthearted manner is more proof to the testimony that Sawatzky has earned his solid reputation. His favorite teaching experience to date has been the first time he succeeded in getting his students to laugh — with him, not at him. Indeed, Sawatzky acknowledges the importance of humor, saying the best advice he has received as a teacher is: "Take the job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."
AS FOR BEING in the running for the National Award, Sawatzky remains modest, saying, "There are a heck of a lot of good teachers out there — It's an honor to have my name considered along with them." The National History Teacher of the Year Award seeks to recognize a unique teaching style, as Cecilia Hartsell of the Gilder Lehrman Institute says, "The committee looks for evidence of creativity and imagination — mentoring and collaboration with other teachers." Principal Parris, however, is confident, saying, "His prospects are excellent — He has worked with his department to bring the best of what they have to teach the children."
And if he happens to not win the national award, it is of little consequence, because Jamie Sawatzky is clearly in his teaching prime. He will be back in the classroom with plenty of pioneering new takes on history to share with his eagerly awaiting students.