Spotlight: Dan Willever (NJ '19)January 14, 2020
Dan Willever’s students at New Jersey’s Ramsey High School collect oral histories from war veterans and presented diplomas to two men who dropped out 75 years ago to serve in World War II. “Students may forget what they read out of a textbook, but they will never forget that day,” says Dan (NJ ’19). “I hope the world will be better off for it.” Dan received his Milken Educator Award at Ramsey High on November 1, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: History is not only your profession, but also your passion. Why is studying history so important for today’s high school students?
Dan Willever (NJ ’19): We are at an inflection point in human history. Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Millions of people are being displaced by war, climate change and ethnic conflict. There has been tremendous economic growth, yet chronic inequality persists. We cannot truly understand any of these contemporary problems unless we know the history of them. The past won’t give us all the answers, but it is an essential foundation for inquiry.
Beyond that, history should give us hope. If you really understand history, you know that the world today is better than it’s ever been. That didn’t just happen. Our ancestors had to overcome many challenges just as pervasive and challenging as the ones we face. We should look to their examples for inspiration.
MFF: Tell us about the oral history project your students do with local veterans.
Dan: When I was a sophomore in college, I was assigned a project in which I had to interview a World War II veteran and collect his story. Not only did I find a remarkable story, it totally changed the way that I view history. Older generations—regardless of whether they’ve experienced war or not—are living time capsules filled with artifacts of the past. While memory isn’t a perfect vessel for learning history, it is essential, because the past only exists as people experience it.
Throughout the school year I expose students to oral histories. They are then tasked with conducting an oral history interview of their own. It doesn’t have to be a veteran at all, because everyone has a story to tell, but many students are interested in the stories that veterans have. I actually made an arrangement several years ago for my students to go into a local veterans home. They interviewed one of the last two survivors of the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, a survivor of Okinawa, and one of the last Tuskegee Airmen from World War II.
Last year, we invited some local veterans into the school. Two World War II vets who had left Ramsey High School before graduation came to share their stories, and we honored them with diplomas nearly 75 years after they would have graduated as 18-year-olds. Students may forget what they read out of a textbook, or even an activity we did in class, but they will never forget that day. I hope the world will be better off for it.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Dan: High school students, especially the juniors and seniors I have the privilege to teach, are generally more aware of the world around them. They are finding jobs, hunting for colleges, figuring out what life will be for them beyond high school. They are getting to an age where so much is expected of them as citizens and young adults, and I want to equip them with the skills to handle those expectations responsibly. As such, I have to engage with them in a way that is more complex. I can expose them to complicated issues—at local, national, and global scales—and help them realize that not only do these problems affect their lives, but they must play an active role in solving them.
MFF: What brought you to teaching?
Dan: I’ve always struggled to answer this question, because I don’t think there is one specific factor or moment I can point to in my life. I have always enjoyed working with younger people, helping them in any way that I can. Teaching is just a more formal version of that, really. I also am passionate about history and social sciences, and for me the best way to act on my passion is to share it with others. Beyond that, I have a deeply rooted philosophy that public education and social studies education are so very important if our country and our world are going to thrive. That’s what is at the forefront of my mind as I’m getting to work every morning.
MFF: What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Dan: I actually had a job as a leave replacement at the high school I graduated from, filling in for a teacher whom I very much admired but was forced to retire due to illness. I knew I had big shoes to fill, and that was a lot of pressure. Often I think that I wasn’t a good listener because I was so obsessed with keeping a job, and not with doing a good job.
Ultimately it didn’t work out for me there, but I was blessed to find a new job in Ramsey. They took a risk on me, because at that point I had lost a lot of confidence—but I recognized that vulnerability and opened myself up to new ideas, innovative pedagogies and taking risks in the classroom. Ramsey really values that in teachers. Seven years later, I feel very much at home in this district.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Dan: So many of my high school teachers were formative in my desire to become a teacher and how I approach my job. One inspiration for me is my U.S. History and AP Government and Politics teacher, Sean Cosgrove. Every day in his class, I was presented with some new challenge that forced me to think critically and develop insights that fundamentally changed my understanding of the world. My high school music teachers, especially my band directors, Dr. Brian McLaughlin and Mr. Brian Fisher, were outstanding role models in terms of how to build effective relationships with students and help them overcome personal obstacles. Lastly, I have the great fortune of being surrounded and inspired by great educators in the district I work in now. They are true professionals, and I am a better teacher because of their examples.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Dan: I don’t remember everything that happened in the minutes after I heard my name called, but I do remember feeling very shocked and overwhelmed with gratitude. There are so many people in the gymnasium who were deserving of such an honor, and so I was very surprised that it was me. I don’t recognize this as my accomplishment—so many people, including my parents, my wife, and my colleagues and students at Ramsey, have played a pivotal role in my teaching career. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve such an honor without them.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Dan: My students were so supportive in the aftermath of the Award. I don’t know that it has had an impact on them, or our relationship, which is good because that was something that I was worried about. Would my students view me differently as a teacher? I try to build a good rapport with all of my students regardless of who they are or how they view me, and the Award hasn’t changed that.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Dan: I got married just two weeks after receiving the Milken Award, so this definitely comes at a pivotal point in my life. I think we’d like to set some aside for a nice honeymoon. We’ll be doing a 20-day tour of central Europe next summer. I’m also not done with my education yet; I’ll probably do another degree at some point, and the Award will definitely help with that.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly which direction I’d like my career to move in. I want to make sure that this bequest doesn’t go to waste. I want it to help me build something that makes me a better teacher and helps my students. I’ve already reached out to many past Milken Award recipients, and I hope to get some inspiration from them. I want to hear how the Award affected their professions and how they’ve used to it make an impact.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Dan: For me, success equals growth. Did I do something better today than I’ve done it previously? I apply the same mindset when it comes to evaluating my students. I also recognize that, while I can impose goals for my students, they also have personal goals they want to achieve. They have their own measure of success; my class is a relatively small part of their life, but it has the potential to expand their horizons and help them. What can I do to help them achieve their success? For me, that’s the most rewarding part of being a teacher—when I know that I’ve done something to help a student reach a personal milestone, even if I was just a small piece of the puzzle.
MFF: What do you want your students to take away from their time with you?
Dan: First and foremost, I want them to remember my class as a supportive environment in which they could take risks towards personal and academic growth. I don’t know that I’ve always met that standard as a teacher. I know for a fact that I haven’t always lived up to that standard personally, but it’s something that I work really hard to achieve.
Second, I want students to remember my class as one in which they were challenged to see the world in a new way. Many of my students live lives that are highly sheltered from the complexities of life in their own country and the world as a whole. In my classes I try to expose them to the diversity of the human experience, but in a way that they are forced to interact with that diversity, not just be aware of it.
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