Outgoing Teacher of the Year: A new perspective
In the last year, Scott Slechta has traveled river to river in Iowa, and coast to coast in the country. But far beyond the accumulated mileage on the 2016 Teacher of the Year, Slechta is ending his tenure a changed educator.
“I was in a true comfort zone with my students as I taught them rhetorical modes for writing, or types of speeches, or discussed literature,” the Fairfield educator told the State Board of Education earlier this month. “But this experience has made me step far beyond my comfort zone. I have learned about myself and my abilities, I have changed and grown. I have gained a newfound confidence in myself outside my classroom walls. I have discovered that I have more to share than knowledge of reading, writing, and speaking.”
In the last year, Slechta attended approximately 50 education meetings and conducted some 75 presentations throughout the state.
One of his favorite meetings took place in Jefferson County where he met with a bunch of retired teachers.
“There was something like three centuries of experience in that room, and I was thinking, ‘you should be talking to me, not me talking to you,’’ he said.
He also addressed his son’s graduation class at Fairfield High School, kicked off an event at his high school alma mater Ar-We-Va Community School District in Westside, and visited his college alma maters Simpson College and University of Northern Iowa.
“I went back to the schools that gave me the basis for what I’m doing now,” he said.
Throughout his travels, he would talk about his personal education priorities – arts in the classroom, the importance of diversity and anti-bullying efforts, teacher leadership and literacy.
“In many of my presentations, I would speak about the importance of reading – not just for instruction in the English-language arts classroom, but in all classrooms,” Slechta said. “I talk about the importance that we are all reading teachers whether it be for literary text or informational text or nonprint text. Reading is essential. To open the world of reading allows children to explore outer space and the inner realms of a cell, to explore the Amazon rainforest or to fix a car’s manifold, to meet Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan and to travel down the Mississippi with Huck Finn and his friend, Jim and to learn that 'it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.'”
For Slechta, the Teacher of the Year also enabled him to see the inner workings of the state’s interdependent education institutions, from the Iowa Department of Education to the Area Education Agencies to the 300-plus school districts in Iowa.
“The state offices offer so much support to our education programs across the state at the state level with its various bureaus and consultants and through it Area Education Agencies with their directors and staff,” he said. “At this point in education in the nation, as a teacher, it is great to know of the strong support systems in place and the advocacy that helps our voices be heard.”
During his tenure, Slechta spent a lot of time at the Iowa Department of Education.
“I was fortunate to occupy a cubicle on the third floor,” he said. “I could see and hear education issues, concerns, and policies being discussed and implemented through a chain of command. From the DE, to the AEAs, to the LEAs, to the teachers, and ultimately its impact on our students, our children, our future.”
As for Slechta’s immediate future, he has decided to retire from Fairfield High School where he spent the last 31 years. But the word “retire” for Slechta is a relative term. Indeed, he’s pursuing his doctorate through Minneapolis-based Walden University with the goal of returning to the classroom. This time, however, the classroom will be in a college setting.
“I’m not retired from the career,” he said. “It will be good for me to be a student again. It makes me think more, it makes me go beyond my comfort zone.”
He and wife Tricia have moved to Des Moines where they are centrally based for their four children.
“We want to make sure we are parents first and foremost,” he said. “We still have two kids in college.”
Of the couple’s children, three have chosen a path in education: Margaret Slechta Way is a speech pathologist for the Des Moines Public Schools. Emily Slechta Morris will be a middle school science teacher in Fairfield, and Claire Slechta is studying at Grand View University to be an elementary teacher. And son Price?
“He’s going to study business,” his dad said, breaking into a broad smile. “He wants to be rich when he grows up.”
Norwalk Community School District’s Shelly Vroegh takes the Teacher of the Year reins on June 1.