Crook County Middle School science teacher Michael Geisen was in the middle of a lesson when he got a message from the school's front office: The White House was on the line.
He was terribly sorry, Geisen responded, but could they call him later? He was with his seventh-graders, and they mattered more.
That attitude is one of the reasons Geisen was to be named the 2008 national teacher of the year Wednesday at a White House Rose Garden ceremony hosted by President Bush.
"I've done demos involving 14,000 volts and lived to explain them," Geisen wrote in his 13-page application to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the teacher of the year program. "I've totaled my vehicle in a 60 mph crash on the way to work, but taught the whole day anyway. I have yet to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I have my top students working on it. Most importantly, though, I've taught with the integrity, passion and heart that inspire those around me to become better at what they do."
Originally trained as a forester, Geisen realized he belonged in a classroom one foggy day as he stood alone atop a deep chasm, missing the students he'd worked with as a forestry teaching assistant at the University of Washington.
When his first child was an infant, he went to Southern Oregon University in Ashland for a master's in teaching. He ended up at Crook County Middle School in the central Oregon town of Prineville, where he's known for making science fun.
To keep students involved, he writes songs, develops games, and helped start "The Night of the Electric Creation," in which they design projects to show off their energy knowledge.
"In a field that is thought of as very left-brain and analytical, I try and infuse as much creativity as possible," Geisen said.
A global do-gooder
Rocky Miner, the principal at Crook County Middle School, said that several summers ago, Geisen spent weeks fundraising, then persuaded students to help him build a rock climbing wall at the school, complete with a mural of nearby Smith Rock.
He also worked with his fellow science teachers to turn a school courtyard into a garden that reflects Oregon's vegetation zones. And a presentation he put together on the deadly effects of microbes on children in the developing world inspired several of his students to raise money for third-world disease relief.
At lunchtime and before school, Geisen's room is often full of students who have come to visit his turtle, join him for an impromptu jam session on their guitars, or just sit and talk. Geisen sometimes calls it the "Ketchup Club," since he's around to offer help to any student who has fallen behind and needs to "catch up."
Taking show on the road
Geisen, 35, plans to continue teaching, but he'll spend most of the next year traveling around the country, speaking about teaching and learning.
"Hey, I am used to dealing with seventh-graders," he said. "Adults who want to hear what I have to say will be a piece of cake."
The three other finalists for the honor were: Lewis Chappelear, an engineering and design teacher at James Monroe High School in North Hills, Calif.; June Teisan, a seventh-grade science teacher at Harper Woods Secondary School in Harper Woods, Mich.; and Thomas Smigiel, Jr., a leadership and earth science teacher at Norview High School in Norfolk, Va.