ALMIRA — Susan Douglas gets way too excited about rocks.
“And you know that this summer I got to dig for dinosaurs in Montana, right?” Douglas asked her class of fourth- and fifth-grade science students at Almira Elementary.
She holds up a rock about twice the size of her fist. Douglas said she and another teacher went looking for rocks in a Montana riverbed bounded by high cliffs showing off hundreds of millions of years of geologic history.
“In this one, you’ll actually see an impression,” she said. “It’s from a creature that came from 542 million years ago. Over 500 million years ago, something left an impression in this rock.”
It’s heavy, Douglas adds as she hands the rock to one of her students, “so we don’t want you to drop it on your computers.”
“So make sure you put it in someone’s hands,” she said.
Between the EarthViewer program on the students’ Chromebooks, which allows them to explore hundreds of millions of years of geological history, and the rocks themselves — including a crumbly black rock that is our best evidence that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs — it’s a pretty hands-on classroom Douglas oversees.
“You have touched the remnants of early life form,” she tell her students. “And you have held in your hands evidence of the end of dinosaurs.”
And it’s probably one of the reasons she’s one of nine finalists for the 2019 Washington Teacher of the Year award.
Which is funny, in a way, because Douglas didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher.
“My first job was as a police officer, with the Hendersonville, Tenn., police department,” she said, noting that she even married a police officer.
In middle school, Douglas said she joined groups to help and tutor other students, and as a police officer, she had an urge to help street kids. However, these were all signs “I didn’t pay attention to,” she said.
But then her husband was killed in the line of duty. So Douglas said she went back to school, got a masters in social work, even did an internship in a psychiatric detention facility, before deciding to become a community organizer in Nashville. It was the relationships, the planting seeds, and helping people work to help themselves that drove her.
“By the time I was 30, I had lived a lot of life,” she said.
She eventually remarried, to a wheat farmer near Almira, helped him for a while, raised a family, and decided to apply for a part-time special education position with the Almira/Coulee-Hartline School District, eventually studying part-time to get her teaching credential and teach elementary school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“I’m an Army brat who found the man of my dreams and the work of my dreams,” she said.
“I’m a nerd,” she said, pointing to the Star Wars models in her classroom. “I love teaching science and math. I like Star Wars, and I’m a NASA fan. I like to know how things work. I don’t know all the answers but there’s room to find out.”
Douglas said it helps having spent a good portion of her adult life doing things other than teaching, that it makes her a better and more focused teacher.
“I had 20 years of adulting, doing different jobs, and that makes me very purposeful and intentional in what I’m doing,” she said.
“My goals are a little more solidified,” she said. “I know what my passion is, working with and for kids.”
It’s a challenge, trying to find ways to communicate her excitement and interest in a subject, and she knows that not all kids will share it. But Douglas takes joy out that challenge.
“I stepped away,” she said, “and these kids are still talking about science.”
Mount Vernon educator Robert Hand was named on Monday the 2019 Teacher of the Year at Seattle Museum of Popular Culture’s JBL Theater.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at email@example.com.