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Sioux Falls history teacher finds reward in working with all students
Mary Schmitz says she’s been fortunate to have a variety of teaching assignments throughout her long career, but none has been as rewarding as her current position.
The AP U.S. History teacher and American studies team teacher at Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School sees many students from all different walks of life. The American studies course is a two-semester, two-period class that fulfills the district’s credit requirements for American history, American literature and composition. Her advanced students routinely outscore their peers across the country on the AP U.S. History exam.
“I think many teachers were either very good in school or struggled with school. I was one of those nerds who used to play school as a kid. I had very talented stuffed animals. They caught on quickly, even with archaic technology like a chalkboard and paper and pencils,” Schmitz joked.
She’s been teaching for nearly 30 years, but still gets excited about working with a new group of students. “I am so thankful when students return from their first year of college, or email me in the midst of the first year, or come back during their senior year after having had my class during their junior year and thank me for helping prepare them for college or admit to me that they miss having my class during the new school year,” Schmitz said. “The fact that they take the initiative to come back, email, or admit out loud that my class made something of a difference in their lives, well, that's priceless, as the commercial goes.”
When studying the Vietnam era, Schmitz started inviting Vietnam veterans into the classroom to talk with the students. That ‘living history’ component, as Schmitz calls it, has expanded to include Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans as well. That activity is now many students’ favorite class period of the year. Schmitz tries to incorporate the students’ skills and interests into the assignments, which often involve examining, explaining and reflecting on stories, news clips, songs and other cultural artifacts from a particular time period. Many of her American Studies students enjoy the assignments on the 1940s and ‘50s.
When asked if she had any advice for new teachers, her reply was very succinct: “Work hard; persevere and keep learning. Make lasting friendships with colleagues and realize you'll never have enough time to ‘do it all,’” Schmitz said.