Mount Vernon's Max Schaffer wins history teacher of the year honor

Max Schaffer is this year's joint recipient of the South Dakota Historical Society's History Teacher of the Year Award, an award his colleagues say is a long-time coming.

Mount Vernon's Mr. Max Shaffer is the South Dakota history Teacher of the Year pictured on, Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Mount Vernon.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

MOUNT VERNON — Max Schaffer is tall. His presence at Mount Vernon is even taller. But he stresses that being named South Dakota history teacher of the year is an accomplishment unlike his height: shared by everyone.

“I feel like it's not about me as much … I want to make it about us. What we’re doing in our school is really special and that’s why I’ve been here for 11 years. I’m just a reflection of what’s going on around here,” said Schaffer, who is 6-foot, 5-inches tall.

Earlier this month, Schaffer was selected as the joint recipient of the South Dakota Historical Society’s history teacher of the year award. He is joined in the honor by Bob Wilbur, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls. Each year the South Dakota Historical Society awards individuals, organizations and teachers who contribute to the preservation of South Dakota history, with the award being presented at the annual history conference April 21-22 at the Ramkota Hotel in Pierre.

It’s an honor that Schaffer said caught him off guard. "I was just as stunned as everyone else,” said Schaffer, describing how he found out about the award. “My principal came down and was like, by the way … you won this award.”

But despite his surprise, others on staff were not.


“Nobody in our school was surprised. It was only a matter of time,” said Dillon Johnson, who teaches high school math in Mount Vernon and is a friend of the award-winning teacher. "We’ve said for a long time that he’s very passionate about what he does. He’s phenomenal.”

It is passion that Schaffer attributes in part to another teacher, a professor he had while an undergraduate at Northwestern.

"In college I took a class on the Soviet Union from a guy named Steven Usitalo who actually studied in Russia. He brought a lot of passion [and] it was like, 'Wow, he’s excited and energetic to talk about something that’s exciting to him,' and I kind of felt the same way. I was like, 'I can see myself doing something like this,' and then it just kind of clicked."

Mount Vernon's Mr. Max Shaffer teaches his history class about the post war Nazi trials on, Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Mount Vernon.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Although Schaffer, the youngest of seven and the third teacher in his family, would likely brush it off, it is clear that his fellow teachers are glad for the occasion to heap praise on him.

Chase Hetland, another colleague, said Schaffer is the same person teaching the kids as he is outside of the classroom. “He’s a really good friend to have, he’s always concerned about you and how you’re doing, just like how there’s multiple times where I’ve seen him have conversations with kids where he asks them about themselves and how they’re doing.”

“He is very knowledgeable in many areas,” Johnson said. “When he is teaching he can relate to many other subjects. He holds students to a high standard, but he can do that [effectively] because he can connect to what they’re interested in. He piques their interest."

“You know, history is not the most exciting to a lot of people,” Schaffer says. “So you've got to make it interesting for them in some way. “

But one of Schaffer’s many answers to this common problem is less so, and is perhaps one part of the reason why Johnson says Schaffer is “both respected and well-liked” by students, not an easy feat for someone working with high schoolers.


The answer: He’s fun.

As Johnson explains “Every year he styles his facial hair into a goofy beard or mustache just like a historical figure. He lets the senior class go through a history book and choose … the kids love it.” In the past, he has dressed up as Abraham Lincoln–complete with a top hat, among others.

Mount Vernon's Max Shaffer teaches his history class about the Nazi post war trails on, Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Mount Vernon.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

That's not to say he takes his job lightly. For Schaffer, teaching runs deep.

“Our old boss who moved to a different school said teaching was a calling,” Schaffer says. “Some people are called to it ... it’s in their blood. It's not like I get up in the morning every day and I’m like ‘Man, I have to go to work everyday.’ It’s like, ‘Man, I get to go to work everyday.’ Sometimes the day isn’t what they’re learning about history, it’s about navigating difficult situations. It's about teaching them more than just what is in a book, too — showing them right from wrong and things like that."

“My grandpa always said if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. You just live,” Schaffer said.

Kai Englisch joined The Mitchell Republic in 2023, where he currently works as a general assignment reporter covering the greater Mitchell area. Englisch graduated from St. John's College in 2022, receiving a B.A. in Liberal Arts. He speaks German and conversational Spanish.
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