Wisconsin’s Best Teachers: Former Students Share Their Favorite Stories

Students gathering around a teacher (https://www.pexels.com/photo/teacher-teaching-students-about-geography-using-a-globe-5428267/)

By Sam Cohen

May 8, 2023

Teachers are the best, right? Whether you’ve noticed your kid becoming a little more excited about reading this year thanks to their current teacher or you can trace your career path to that one educator who challenged you, chances are you or someone you know has been impacted by the heroes who’ve dedicated their lives to teaching. 

For National Teacher Appreciation Week, we wanted to hear more about those stories. We asked both our newsletter subscribers and our followers on social media about their favorite teachers, and the responses were amazing

From personal experiences to observed anecdotes, these Wisconsinites shared fond memories of their most beloved teachers. Fair warning—you may need a box of tissues as you read through these.

A Television Writer Turned English Teacher 

Photo courtesy of Wisconsinite who wrote about Mrs Davis

Anne Davis is a 7th grade English teacher at the University School of Milwaukee. (We also hear she’s the co-lead of the middle school’s award-winning forensics team.)

A 57-year-old Wisconsin resident wrote to us about Davis. As they put it, Davis “has a great sense of humor, incredible patience, and the gift of words to usher Wisconsin’s future leaders into adulthood.” Before becoming a full-time English teacher for 7th graders, Davis worked in broadcast television. She “embraced her love of children and working with people [and turned it] into a career change, starting with being a sub.”

How awesome is that?

The Dad Who Pulled Triple Duty in the Classroom 

Photo courtesy of the Braun family

Gailen W. Braun taught several grades at once at a small school in Wisconsin before moving on to teach at other locations. Braun also worked as a custodian while he taught, earned his master’s degree, and supported his large family. He eventually became principal, and he retired after many years of dedication to the teaching community.

Some of Braun’s children pursued careers in education after watching his glowing example. “I watched him work,” one son told us, “and it made a big impression on me. I eventually taught for 16 years, became a principal, and retired as a superintendent after earning a doctorate in educational leadership. I currently work in post secondary education.”

The One Who’s Always There

Lisa Waszak is a second grade teacher at Neeskara Elementary in Milwaukee. “She is dedicated, ever-present and reflective on her instruction and supplements curriculum where needed to make it relevant and accessible to students,” shared a friend and former teaching partner.

“Ms. Waszak’s humor, creativity and ‘firm and fair’ nature have served students for decades in Milwaukee Public Schools.” Waszak was also praised for adapting to the needs of her students, both individually and for the classroom in aggregate. She is known for her ability to pivot on a dime if the class “needs a ‘Sam Hammich’ story or a quick movement ‘brain break.’”

And yet, as her friend noted, Waszak is somehow able to always be there for her students and ensure their needs are met while also serving on a number of committees in her school. Talk about a team player! 

The Long-Timer

For nearly 30 years, Danielle See Olson has taught 6th through 8th grade special education at Toki Middle School in Madison. The reader who nominated Olson said that she “without a doubt holds the longest special ed teacher record in the Madison Metropolitan School District for this age group.”

Olson teaches students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and the impact the 29-year teaching veteran has made in her students’ lives is beyond measure. 

The One Who Makes Learning Fun

Billie Jo Johnson, a 7th grade reading teacher from Meyer Middle School in River Falls, was revered for her approach to “project based learning.” Johnson keeps things fun for the students, regardless of what the class is learning. “Billie,” another reader told us, “is a true student advocate who cares about each student as an individual.” 

The Team Player

Another person who responded to our request for teacher stories told us about Marci Hoerz from Grafton, who “has filled in for absent teachers on numerous occasions and has had outstanding success with a Special Needs student. She is always willing to help out where and when needed.”

An Imaginative Educator

Charlotte Manning is an English and history teacher at Adams-Friendship High School. According to a 67-year-old woman who was inspired to become a teacher because of her, Manning has “challenged her students at every level, bringing a broad range of materials and methods into her classroom.”

“She stretched the imaginations of her students beyond the borders of our towns and our times,” the reader continued, adding: “She was a bold educator, taking on more than a few challenging classes.”

The Believer

Nikki Thurston is a high school English teacher in the Loana School District. Another reader, 37, told us that Thurston’s students “find her classes challenging, but they quickly see the fruit of their labor in test scores and other ways.” 

Thurston, the reader continued, is known for taking the time to get to know her students, and she isn’t afraid to challenge them because she knows they can succeed. 

“We recently had a high school junior transfer into our district that never had a GPA over 1.7. Ms. T. worked with the student during her class and during study hall to build his confidence, and he raised his GPA to over 3.5.The student was so excited to earn such high grades that he is now talking about attending college, which is something he never thought he could do.”

A Dedicated Supporter

A parent wrote in to spotlight Mark Vandenberg of Sunnyside Elementary in Sobieski. “Mark is great, always going above and beyond for his kids,” the father said. “Encouraging them daily, reaching out to and working with parents on whatever their child needs, and always asking what he can do better.”  His kindergarten class reportedly adores him, and Vandenberg provides resources to parents to help their children learn through the summer “ahead of the curve in first grade.”

“This is something Mark did on his own because he sees my son excelling and wants to support him. We couldn’t ask for more than Mark gives.”

The One Who Went Above and Beyond

A former student and chemistry lover wrote in to share more about Alice Keegan, a chemistry teacher at Riverdale High School in the 1950s and 60s.  “She was my chemistry teacher and recognized immediately my ability and interest,” the 76-year-old woman shared. “She gave me extra work and extra responsibilities and extra time in the lab to stoke my curiosity and had me teaching other kids.”

Keegan was also just a kind soul all around. “She also noticed I never came to any child/parent events at the school and my parents never came to any parent events. She asked me if I was coming to the mother/daughter banquet. I said no. She asked why. I said because my mother would not come. So she, having only grown children, went with me from then on to all the parent/child things.”

Today, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville offers a scholarship in Alice Keegan’s name. 

A Shining Example

Marie Anderson-Smolinski, a special education teacher for 9-12 grades at River Falls High School, was described by a former colleague, 70, as “a shining light to those who work with her and the students she mentors.” 

“Special education is often overlooked when we think of outstanding teachers because we are not academic specialists. Instead we need to be able to connect with kids, motivate kids and be empathetic to kids and their families. Marie is an outstanding teacher in all these areas. She is able to connect with kids in a way that engages and motivates them to do their best, which can be manifested as improving attendance or completing assignments or just not dropping out of school.”

“In the aftermath of the pandemic the importance of mental health is finally being recognized, but Marie has been aware of this for many years.”

A Music Maestro  

Mrs. Jean Suhr, a grade school music teacher at Walworth Elementary School, was remembered fondly by a former student, now 70. “I credit her for my life-long love of music!” 

“She was the one who, at a young age, introduced me to classical music. She would present amazing filmstrip ‘cartoons,’ accompanied by the musical stories, such as Scheherazade, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Danse Macabre, etc. To this day, when I hear this music, I think of her and remember the delightful way I learned of it.” 

“Mrs. Suhr nourished my musical heart in so many ways, the singing, the movement, the joy, which I have carried with me all these years. I am so grateful to have had her in my life!”

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