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2014 BVSD Teacher of the Year
Christensen’s passion for life inspires student-led nominations
By By Jill Meier
Challenger editor

May 14. 2014 10:20AM
In his 11 years as a high school English teacher at Brandon Valley, Matt Christensen has been nominated for the district’s Teacher of the Year award on four occasions.

Twice, he was selected as a runner-up. This year, he rose to the top of the selection committee’s list to be named Brandon Valley’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

“I got embarrassed when he (Nick Bentele of The First National Bank of Sioux Falls) went on and on and on,” Christensen said. “I do those things because I know students enjoy and grow from them. That’s my job, and it’s a privilege to call it a ‘job.’ ”

Bentele read from a long list of reasons why Christensen is well deserving of the honor. The 35-year-old Yankton native has inspired hundreds of students in his classroom, not just to be better writers or readers but to be better persons.

“Mr. C treats every student with the utmost respect; he constantly reminds us that we are smarter than we are given credit for,” wrote BV senior Bailey Quanbeck in her nomination letter. “Students who once felt intimidated stepping into an English classroom are now enlivened with the idea that their input is wanted and unique.”

To do that, Christensen uses the three R’s – rigor, relevance and relationships –identified by Dr. Rick Melmer. Respect, gets tossed in there, too, as he greets every student on the first day in his class with a handshake, a smile and knowing each student’s name.

Christensen said he takes those extra steps simply for the students.

“They’re working harder than students ever have in the history of American schools.
They’re schedules are so demanding – they’re rigorous – and they show up all the time with positivity. You get 50 minutes of their day and they give us even much more beyond that,” he said. “Some have jobs five days a week, others are in sports, plays, musicals. These kids are doing phenomenal work; you just have to respect them. And if you respect them, care about them, they’re going to respond to you and are going to really invest in their own critical thinking, they’re own learning.”

Two staff members at Yankton High – Pat Schultz and Dick Anderson – along with the late Mike Friedel, an professor and coach at Augustana College, inspired Christensen to become a teacher.

“(Mike) blended football, athleticism and intellectual pursuits very well and showed me that I could do both,” he said. “(He showed me) that teachers don’t have to be a certain way and coaches don’t have to be a certain way. You can pursue a lot of different things.”

But it wasn’t until he was at Augustana that he truly felt the calling to a career in the classroom.

“I’m really glad I found the right place to teach because the families really care what goes on around here,” he said.

Prior to Brandon Valley, Christensen taught one year at Parker-Hurley.

Brandon Valley, he says is “home.”

“I hope to teach here as long as I can. I could go to Sioux Falls, elsewhere or back to Yankton, but I’m staying here, and hope to stay here because this is where people care the most,” he said. “Everywhere you look, it’s pro-school efforts from community to the parents to the students.”

Far beyond the classroom

Christensen’s lessons extend far beyond the classroom, moving his lesson plans to the mall and the zoo, for example.

At the mall, he explained, the students studied advertising in preparation for first-year college courses where they’ll write about advertisements and mass media.

“I wanted to show them strategies the mall is using to get into their wallets. We had a little scavenger hunt … just to show them there can be critical thinking everywhere,” he said.

His English students also went to the zoo, because it lends itself to one of his favorite pieces of literary, Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.”

Earlier this year, Christensen and a group of his students had the opportunity to Skype with Martel. The online visit was arranged by BV senior Erin Buse.

“It was phenomenal, one of the coolest, realest conversations I’ve ever had,” Christensen said.

“But again, I tried to make it about the students.”

And that’s what he tries to do on the sidelines as the defensive football coach for the Lynx and seventh grade girl’s basketball coach.

“It’s always for them and knowing they can do more,” he says. “If encouraged, trusted and know much is expected of them, they’ll do more than they would have. They will.”
Letters of recommendation

Christensen has no idea the number of letters of recommendation he’s written on behalf of seniors.
“A bunch,” he says of that immeasurable number.

“But it’s really a pleasure because I know they’re valuable. … And I try to say something unique about them, be genuine.”

Senior Annika Hindbjorgen said Christensen has written countless letters of recommendation on her behalf for both job applications and scholarships.

“He writes much more than the average, run-of-the-mill recommendation,” she said.
“The letters explain in detail my successes and positive characteristics … He writes so passionately and eloquently that one may begin to believe they are reading a best selling novel rather than a letter of recommendation.”

Hindbjorgen says her time in Christensen’s classroom has prepared her to be a “great writer and literary analyzer.”
“But more importantly, he is su
pplying me with advice and real world knowledge I need to know to be an honest, caring, humble, respectable and remarkable human being,” she said.

And Christensen tries to inspire all of his students in some way.

“(You have to) find something that matters to them and helps them feel important. (You have to) make their interests the focus,” he said. “I happen to be the expert in grammar in this room and I happen to know a certain bulk of short stories, poems, novels and plays. That’s my area of expertise. … That’s not going to make them an English major on the spot or make them change from business to English. … It’s just all about finding what they care about.”

Matt Christensen's high school English classroom looks more like an art room. That's because Christensen, who was selected as the 2014 Brandon Valley Teacher of the Year, gives his students extra credit opportunities utilizing art. He's pictured with "Feat," a metaphor project inspired by the book, "Life of Pi," which was made by a group of his students. Photo by Jill Meier

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