It’s been a long journey for Teacher of the Year Finalist Joe Meyer, one that began in a dusty, wind-blown African nation half a world away.
The language arts instructor at Eagle Ridge Junior High is a second-generation teacher. His father Clark taught seventh-grade science for decades. However, when Meyer began his undergraduate degree at Saint John’s University he planned to pursue a career in journalism or perhaps go to law school.
“Never in a million years did I want to be a teacher,” Meyer said.
That changed after graduation, when he joined the Peace Corps and was dispatched to Botswana, a desert nation tucked between Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. Meyer’s career began in Mmadinare, a village of about 8,000 people in the eastern portion of Botswana. He arrived in 1987 via a single tarred road, which was often impassable during the rainy season.
It was a bit of an adjustment for Meyer, a native of Mankato.
“When it was hot there, it was 120 degrees and my first thought was 'I'm never going to last.' Man, that heat was just oppressive,” Meyer recalled. “You can't do anything. My first couple months I'd sweat and I had to hide in the shade, but after six months you're used to it.”
At the local school, Meyer taught agriculture and English to students aged 14 to 22.
“A lot of them were the first ones in their family to go to school so they were very respectful because their families demanded it,” Meyer said. “They appreciated teachers. They appreciated their kids getting an education.”
In the late 1980s, Botswana was going through a period of expansion, thanks to the booming diamond trade. The government poured money into education and infrastructure, an effort that included a new school in Mmadinare. The tin-roofed building would likely be considered rudimentary by U.S. standards. Most classrooms did not have electricity and only the central office was equipped with flush toilets. The children were served lunch by local women, who cooked up meals outside under the trees.
Although the facilities were a world apart from Eagle Ridge, much of what Meyer learned in Botswana still applies. There, Meyer picked up what has become one of his cardinal rules as a teacher: There’s one goal — student proficiency — but at least six ways to get there.
“It's like buying a car. Some of us know a lot about cars, some of us know nothing, and it's foolish for a car sales person to treat everyone the same,” Meyer explained. “You can't expect that every kid comes in to have the same background knowledge. It just doesn't work that way.”
“So how do you balance your teaching so that one kid isn't bored and I'm not talking over the other kid's head?” Meyer continued. “That's a universal challenge of teaching — reaching the greatest number of kids and challenging them at the same time.”
One thing was crystal clear: Meyer had found his calling. Upon returning to the U.S. he enrolled in the University of Minnesota and got his teaching license. He started with the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District in 1992. He spent five years at the district’s alternative school before moving into his current position at Eagle Ridge. Since then, he has taught seventh- to ninth-graders the ins and outs of grammar, writing and classic literature like Edgar Allen Poe, “Romeo and Juliet,” and The Hunger Games. Meyer recently organized an all-school field trip to see the Hunger Games movie the day it came out — an endeavor that involved 750 students and 50 staff in all.
Meyer says he is most rewarded when one of his students hits upon a moment of inspiration and clarity.
“It’s that shared joy when a kid understand that they understand something,” Meyer said.
Nevertheless, Meyer said he has some tough days.
"I am not the teacher of the year for every kid and I'm not the teacher of the year every day," Meyer said. “People always ask if you're unflappable. I'm very flappable because I have high expectations: I don't care if you're the best writer in the class or the worst writer in the class, you each have to work the same amount and get better.”
This is the second time that Meyer’s name has been put forward for Teacher of the Year, an annual honor organized by Education Minnesota, a 70,000-member educators' union.
"I'm honored to represent our district," Meyer said. "It's humbling because I teach at a really good school in what I think is a really good district with lots of good teachers. There are so many other teachers doing the exact same thing I am."
On Monday, the top 10 were announced. The finalists were chosen by panel of 22 leaders in education, business, government and non-profits, which narrowed the field from initial 111 nominees.
The winner will be announced during a banquet on May 6. Hopes are high, especially at home.
"Joe is very compassionate and he loves his students," said his father Clark. "I think that would be amazing if he won. He certainly deserves it."