By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Amy Van Appledorn grew up in Ann Arbor, the younger sister of Todd and Scott, and the daughter of Carl Van Appledorn, a urologist at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital who passed away last year, and Suzanne Van Appledorn, who remains active in the community.
Van Appledorn attended Newport Elementary, Forsythe Junior High, and Pioneer High School, graduating in 1989, the last year it was a three-year high school. She played softball for Northwestern University before graduating in 1993, and later earned her master’s degree in history from Eastern Michigan University.
Van Appledorn started teaching social studies at Huron in the fall of 1995 and has been there ever since. She coached Huron’s varsity softball team for 10 years and the tennis team for two. She was recently honored with a University of Chicago Outstanding Educator award, which is student-nominated in recognition of profound influence to students.
Van Appledorn is married to Christy Garrett, a business education teacher. The couple—who just celebrated 20 years together—live in Ann Arbor with their children, Megan, 13, a student at Slauson Middle School; Tyler, 10, who attends Lawton; and their dog Izzy.
What inspired you to become a teacher? My great teachers and coaches, of course! I even told my high school humanities teacher (Tracey Van Dusen) that I would love to do what she does. She let me become a ‘teacher for a day’ when I was a senior at Pioneer. We sometimes laugh about that. The Humanities Program, lead by great teachers like Elida Giles and Pamela Graff, had a great influence on my love of history and literature. I knew when I was taking that course, I was experiencing something truly great. It inspired me! The fact I get to be a part of the humanities program as a career is a bit of a dream come true. Also, a huge shout out to the amazing Robin Wax, my U.S. history teacher, who was simply an outstanding educator and role model.
Also, when I was in sixth grade, my father took a sabbatical to England. We lived in Cambridge, and my mother would take me and my two brothers on day trips all over the country. I got to experience Shakespeare’s home, Hadrian’s Wall, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the signing site of the Magna Carta, a visit to the British Museum, to say a few. All those experiences made me love European history, which has become a lifelong passion.
Did you have a Plan B? Like many high school graduates, I wasn’t certain of anything. I’d always thought my strengths lay more in math and science, but found I just loved the humanities. It was an emotional decision. I am also really passionate about our environment and thought of a career in Natural Resources or Environmental Engineering. I still sometimes think about a “retirement” career in the National Park Service.
As a Pioneer High School grad, was it tough to become a Huron River Rat? This question made me smile. I was very proud to have graduated from Pioneer. I loved it! But Huron has been my family for the last 23 years. I remember thinking the first year I was teaching that being at Huron felt like a betrayal of my Pioneer roots. But Huron is truly a special place. I feel really lucky I get to teach here and I am definitely a proud River Rat now. (Don’t tell my Pioneer classmates.)
In general, what if any changes have you seen in high school students over the years? These students are amazing. In terms of how talented, intelligent, creative and thoughtful, they continue to impress me to the core. I have nothing but mad respect for the pressures they face in our complicated modern society and, for the most part, they handle it with such grace and poise. Probably the biggest change I see is not with the students but with how technology is impacting their attention span. I think cell phones can be a powerful tool and might actually enhance a young person’s educational experience, but it can also be detrimental to their focus. Also, I went through all of my undergraduate life without the benefit of the internet. Students now have so many resources and so much information available to them. Teaching students to filter through all of the information to get legitimate resources is a skill in itself. I guess in this era of fake news, we all have to be cautious about where the information is coming from. I think many students struggle with simply unplugging and immersing themselves in the experience of the moment. But the students haven’t changed. They’re still optimistic young adults who want to have a positive impact on their world.
How do you keep students engaged? It’s a challenge every day. I want my assignments and lessons to be relevant and interesting. I try to be welcoming and entertaining. And just my subject matter—history and philosophy—is so engaging in itself. I’m very lucky to get to do what I do and teach what I get to teach.
In your 23 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning? I’ve learned that teaching is all about the students. It’s important to try to make their lives a little brighter by showing them you sincerely care about them and their progress. Sometimes just a smile or a welcoming gesture can make a big difference. I have to say that I learn something new from my students every day and I genuinely enjoy them.
Describe an average workday. A typical workday can start as early as 4 a.m. when I have essays to grade. I find I can grade faster when I’m fresher and without distractions of my children or students. I have to leave home about 6:45 to make it to school with time to prepare my classroom. I teach two sections of DP HL IB History and three sections of humanities. Since I’m the department chair of humanities, it falls on me to be sure we’re organized and scheduled. Team teaching is a true gift. I have such talented and creative colleagues and the fact I get to experience their art is incredible.
IB requires that we have a collaboration hour, which for social studies is second hour. We often need to produce lessons, evaluate rubrics, design unit plans, enter information into Atlas, a program that helps organize and standardize coursework and learn more about the nuances of IB. Often I need to be here an hour or two after school to work with students, plan lessons, attend meetings or help maintain the theater or auditorium—something I signed up to do this year. Then it’s the mad race home to feed the kids and get them off to their activities or help them with their homework. The work week is often chaotic—but I like to think of it as organized chaos! It’s important to enjoy the moment and just do one thing at a time.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher? I’d first want to thank them profusely for doing this. It’s a great and rewarding career but it will take all of your emotion, time, hard work, focus and caring. It’s hard to explain the immense struggle that all first-year teachers experience. I hope they know that we support them and that the community is behind them. I’d also tell them to get plenty of sleep, take time for themselves and drink a lot of orange juice—to ward off the inevitable invasion of new germs! It will get easier.
Favorite websites: New York Times, Yahoo, MSNBC and (alas) Amazon. I sometimes use Newsela to talk about current events.
Apps you can’t live without: It’s not an app, but Ken Long, the department chair of social studies, introduced us to New York Times crossword puzzles about a decade ago. I often spend some of my lunchtime working my way through the week’s puzzles. I don’t always complete them, but love the mental challenge. I have a love/hate relationship with my phone, so perhaps Google Maps or Waze are apps I can’t live without. I also listen to Amazon music. It’d be hard to jog without it.
What’s your favorite to-do list manager? Pen and Paper? Is there a better way? Someone will need to enlighten me!
What is the most rewarding part of teaching? The relationships I get to build with my colleagues and students. I never stare at a clock and wish time to go faster. In fact, the bell has become my enemy, as there’s just so much to do and to discuss! I cherish getting to spend time with these talented young adults. They make me smile and laugh and inspire me to become a better teacher (and human). My colleagues give me support through the struggle and understand the challenges I face. Thank you to all of them for their help on this crazy journey!
What has surprised you most about the profession? I guess I didn’t realize that being a teacher saturates every part of your life. It’s not a job where it starts at 7:45 and ends at 2:36. It bleeds into your evenings and weekends. It consumes your thoughts and impacts your mood. I question decisions I make and reflect constantly on how I can make or do this better. And history is a subject that you’ll never really be done studying. There’s just so much to learn! Almost daily, I’m learning something new. I sometimes wish I had a second life where I could just continuously read more about world history, politics, culture and religion.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher? It’s so hard! You have to juggle a few dozen issues all at the same time and there’s never enough time. I have a theory that even if I stayed up all night, I’d never really feel caught up. I also hope that people realize just how much a teacher cares about their students and how much we respect their perseverance. They make this ‘rat’ race totally worth it.
How do you recharge? Lately, it’s been running. Sports used to be a big part of my life, and getting back into an athletic lifestyle has really helped my stress levels. Music, like playing violin and piano, and listening to my favorite artists is also a way to mellow out. Reading books, walking the dog, catching “The Daily Show” and cooking a nice dinner are also fun for me. I was lucky enough to marry my best friend, a person who is really positive and fun, and makes each day an adventure! In addition, I have two amazing kids. Spending time with my family and getting to experience their activities such as theater, baseball and swimming makes me proud. In fact, in a fit of madness, I agreed to coach my son’s baseball team, the Ann Arbor Aces. We had so much fun transitioning to travel ball, with kids pitching and stealing! We didn’t win a whole lot but those boys are a bundle of pure joy. I also love to travel with my family. Last summer we took a driving tour of upstate New York, Vermont, Maine, and Boston. It was incredible.
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life? Huron has made the leap to being an International Baccalaureate World School. I have been lucky to get to help design and teach the diploma level history course. IB expects a more inquiry-based classroom. This means that less of the learning is driven by me directly, but more by the students’ own questions and curiosity. Making this leap has been uncomfortable at times, but also incredibly rewarding. I’m so proud of these IB Candidates for taking this educational risk and they constantly inspire me with their passion, questions, and commitment.
We joke at home that we have two jobs; teachers by day, and unpaid Uber drivers by night. Raising my children is my great honor, and I have loved (nearly) all of it! As every parent experiences, it has its challenges but I feel such pride in the people they are becoming. Thank you to all the teachers who have helped guide my own children. We couldn’t do it without you! You are all heroes, especially the elementary teachers that (finally) taught my kids to read. Bless you! You are amazing!
Editor’s note: The following is the letter former Huron student Katia Kukucka sent to the University of Chicago nominating Van Appledorn as an outstanding teacher:
It is a pleasure to read wonderful tributes about teachers who are passionate about their students. They deserve the press coverage of their outstanding service to the families in their school and their commitment to delivering the best education has to offer. Kudos to Amy and Don Packard whom you featured earlier.
Amy is a wonderful tribute to the power of an AAPS education – and she continues to model that for all her students. So happy to see her receive this well deserved accolade.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this thoughtful article/interview featuring Amy who is most deserving of this recognition. The photos enhanced her enthusiasm and passion for teaching