A project that brings area veterans and students together in a social setting is being praised by Veterans of Foreign Wars leaders and has earned a Mitchell Middle School teacher the organization’s Middle School Teacher of the Year award for South Dakota.
Jim Bauder, a social studies teacher at Mitchell Middle School, was honored Tuesday night at VFW Post 2750 for his work in bridging the gap between the two groups at a meeting of post and state VFW leaders in downtown Mitchell.
“I just want to thank the VFW and the men and women who served,” said Bauder, a Mitchell native and 1991 graduate of Mitchell High School.
For years, the South Dakota VFW has honored teachers at the elementary, middle school and high school levels for teaching Americanism and patriotism to students. Each year, a classroom elementary, middle school and high school teacher whose curriculum focuses on citizenship education topics can be nominated for the VFW National Citizenship Teacher Award.
This year, the national organization changed its format, awarding national citations to the three award winners in each state, making Bauder one of 50 middle school teachers recognized by the national VFW organization this year. Also named as recipients of the award this year in South Dakota were elementary school teacher Heather Cooper at Custer Elementary School and high school teacher Donna Deinert of Parkston High School.
Bauder helped establish an annual event that draws dozens of veterans to Mitchell Middle School to spend time mingling with the student body. Some veterans wear their uniforms, some bring old newspaper clippings or other mementos from their days of service. But all bring an interest in sharing stories and lending perspective on the meaning of service and sacrifice.
“We brainstormed on how we could do something for veterans and recognize them,” Bauder said. “We don’t have a lot of time or space, so let’s keep it simple with a meet and greet.”
The event is usually scheduled in the early morning hours around Veterans Day, and features a free-flowing environment to promote conversation, questions and answers. With organizational help from the student council, fellow faculty members and the music department providing patriotic music, the event has become a tradition at the school. Faculty at the school who have served in the National Guard have also appeared at the event to share their experiences.
The interaction provides a chance for students to cross a real-world bridge to the men and women who have served in uniform and their experiences, Bauder said. Most of the students have some family or acquaintances that have served in the armed forces at some point, and the meet and greet is a chance to expand on that connection.
“I think it’s that connection. We study this stuff and it brings a reality to it when you see the sacrifice they have made to basically give us what we have today,” Bauder said. “It goes with social studies. We study those things — that sacrifice and making the connection between the past and the present.”
Feedback on the event has been positive, both from students and faculty, Bauder said. Leaders with VFW Post 2750 and the South Dakota VFW also praised the work during their award presentation Tuesday evening. Duane Kummer, commander of VFW Post 2750, said the event is an energetic time for sharing stories and history with a younger generation.
“It’s a busy area. There’s coffee, there’s donuts, there’s kids and there’s veterans. It’s an enjoyable process,” Kummer said.
Cody Mangold, commander for the South Dakota VFW, presented Bauder with a plaque, a clock and other tokens of recognition for his work. Mangold said the efforts of Bauder, his teaching colleagues and student leaders at Mitchell Middle School are important and must not be overlooked when it comes to remembering veterans and American history.
“I cannot thank you enough for the sacrifice you make for your students and veterans to be able to do this," Mangold said. "Being the child of a teacher, I see the sacrifices you make and I really do appreciate what you’re doing for everybody.”
Bauder spent time in Watertown and Parkston before arriving at Mitchell Middle School in 2003 and has spent the last 17 years in front of classrooms filled with middle school students.
It’s a group of learners he enjoys teaching, he said, and hopefully they will continue bringing their curious questions and attentive ears to the event that has helped bridge the gap between students and veterans in a school setting.
“It’s very informal. They show up and have some coffee and bring some memorabilia or some stories and just make that connection,” Bauder said.