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Avon educator selected as South Dakota’s history teacher of the year

AVON -- Adorning the wall of Mel Fathke's classroom is an American flag that once flew over Mount Vernon, Virginia, the home of former President George Washington.

Teacher Mel Fathke laughs while being interviewed in his classroom on Tuesday in Avon. Fathke received the 2016 South Dakota History Teacher of the Year in May. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Teacher Mel Fathke laughs while being interviewed in his classroom on Tuesday in Avon. Fathke received the 2016 South Dakota History Teacher of the Year in May. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

AVON - Adorning the wall of Mel Fathke's classroom is an American flag that once flew over Mount Vernon, Virginia, the home of former President George Washington.

This flag is just one of many historic items Fathke has collected over his 38-year teaching career. And now it's his turn to go down in history.

The 59-year-old history teacher at the Avon School District has a philosophy that revolves around engaged learning. A recent addition to his classroom, which sits proudly on his desk located on the third floor of the Avon School, is a plaque naming Fathke the 2016 South Dakota History Teacher of the Year from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

With the award, Fathke received $1,000, an archive of books, historical resources and an honor like none other.

"It was kind of shocking," Fathke said of when he first got notification that he had won.

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This is not the first time Fathke has been up for this award. In 2012, Fathke was nominated by a student. But it wasn't until May, four years later, that Fathke was selected as history teacher of the year.

"I nominated him because he is an excellent teacher and excellent role model for the students," Avon Principal James Stubkjaer said. "The big thing he has been able to do over the years is, every year we have students who graduate, and what they want to do is be history teachers."

Not only is he inspiring his students, Stubkjaer said, but he's helping the profession.

Fathke is very influential, Stubkjaer said, and he motivates his students to be good citizens as well as great students.

On top of that, Stubkjaer said Fathke is a "wonderful storyteller," drawing his students in. Stubkjaer compared Fathke's storytelling to a kindergarten teacher during story time, with students gathered around listening intently, with their eyes wide.

"He can tell a story like no other," Stubkjaer said.

Before winning the award, Fathke was required to provide a lesson plan and an extended student project that demonstrated the use of primary documents, artifacts, historic sites, oral histories and other resources.

For the student project, Fathke turned to freshman Cassie Voigt. She wrote a nine-page paper about the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address.

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"It was challenging," she said, "But I got it done."

When Voigt learned that Fathke had won the state history teacher of the year award, she was happy. Voigt has had Fathke as a teacher since seventh grade, and she's hoping, as long as he doesn't retire, she'll have him through the end of her high school career.

Fathke said as long as he can stay healthy, he will be able to teach and coach for a few more years.

For Voigt, her favorite part of Fathke's classes are the projects. With the projects and his lectures, Voigt said Fathke makes learning about history easier to understand.

"He's a good teacher," Voigt said.

Always learning

In his career as a history teacher in South Dakota, Fathke has used a hands-on style of teaching to engage with students.

The longtime teacher said his favorite part of his career has been all of the memories, as well watching his students grow and mature.

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And for his students, Fathke said their favorite part of his classes are working on posters. Hanging on the back wall of Fathke's classroom hangs the most recent poster projects completed by his students. The posters, which feature the artistic work of his students, all have a quote chosen by each student to start their year.

And soon, even more posters will be put on the wall. Fathke said his students do posters every few weeks or so in class.

Through the posters and other projects, Stubkjaer said Fathke is able to bring out the students' creativity.

"He just has really awesome lessons that he does with the students that are very creative ..." Stubkjaer said. "I believe that he truly deserves that award."

The Avon school has been in session for more than a month, and Fathke said it has been going well.

"It's off to an amazing start," he said. "As the years go by, they go by quick."

Fathke is originally from Avon and he graduated from high school in 1975. His two favorite subjects in school were science and history, but Fathke said he was unsure of what he wanted to do. Many of his relatives were educators and school administrators. Before he knew it, he was joining them.

When he attended college at Dakota State University, Fathke said he discovered teaching was what he wanted to do, inspired by one of his professors.

After graduating with a degree in history from DSU in 1979, Fathke got a job right away at the Geddes Community School. There, he was employed as a social studies instructor, teaching U.S. history, U.S. government, sociology, psychology, world history, world geography and elementary education. He also was the head football and boys basketball coach.

After 20 years at the Geddes Community School, Fathke returned to his alma mater in Avon in 1999 where he has been teaching since.

He currently is the social science teacher for grades 7-12. He also is the assistant football coach and the head boys basketball coach.

As a history teacher, Fathke especially likes the Civil War era. He's been to Gettysburg four times, he said. And when he and his family went on vacation earlier this year, he served as their guide. These trips, including others throughout his career, give him the opportunity to share his first-hand accounts with his students.

In the classroom, Fathke has a special unit on the Civil War, with poster projects, papers and presentations.

"I tell the kids I never graduated," Fathke said. "You know you always are still learning and that's kind of an important thing."

One of Fathke's best qualities, according to Stubkjaer, is that he serves as a great role model for students. Stubkjaer said students see this in his classroom, in the hallways and in the community, where he's very involved.

"It's just how he is as a person ... " Stubkjaer said. "It'll be a sad day for students when he retires."

Posters line the back of Mel Fathke's classroom in Avon. Creating posters are a common practice in Fathke's teaching. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Posters line the back of Mel Fathke's classroom in Avon. Creating posters are a common practice in Fathke's teaching. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

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