HeroVet: Andy Baumgartner, Ex-Marine and 'National Teacher of the Year'

Andy Baumgartner

There was a time not too long ago when a male kindergarten teacher would more often than not draw more than a few snickers. After all, teaching in the lower grades was very much the province of women.

Not any more. Certainly not when one particular man, a former Marine who has taught kindergarten for a quarter of a century, has been recognized for his commitment, his concern, and his teaching philosophy: Andy Baumgartner, who served in the Corps at the tail end of the Vietnam War, is the first Georgian - and only the second kindergarten teacher - to have been named "National Teacher of the Year" in the half-century this award has been given.

No one is snickering now.

Nothing Very Glamorous

Andy Baumgartner, 49, joined the Marine Reserve in 1972. After boot camp, he decided to "go regular," and served a total of 21 months at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune.

While his time in service was "nothing very glamorous," he says without rue, "my time in the Marines was the first time in my life that I was totally dependent on myself. I learned that I could press myself to meet goals. I learned that by pushing myself, I could do more than I ever thought I could do."

The sense of self, and self-confidence, Andy emerged with when his hitch was up was palpable.

Although he never fully pursued his childhood dream of a career under the lights on Broadway, this minister’s son chose to take a perhaps more fulfilling route: working with children.

After receiving his bachelor’s of science degree in speech and language pathology from the University of Georgia in 1976 - he also earned a master’s in early childhood education from North Georgia College two years later - Andy began a career as a kindergarten teacher. For the past 20 years he has been at the A. Brian Merry Elementary School in Augusta, where he also makes his home.

His efforts were acknowledged in a big way in 1999, when he was selected as Georgia’s "Teacher of the Year." He then went through a rigorous competition from which he was chosen by representatives of 15 leading professional education organizations as the first Georgian to be "National Teacher of the Year."

And for that year, Andy Baumgartner became education’s ambassador of good will. He traveled across the country, and to Japan, to hail the virtues and make a compelling case for the needs of public education. He sat elbow-to-elbow with national policymakers, who listened to his message: that public education "needs to pay better to attract the best and the brightest - or at least the better and the brighter - into the profession." That to function well, schools need more community and parental involvement. That administrators should administrate - take care of finances and the physical plant - and let teachers teach.

While his year was paid for without recompense save for his school salary - he had to take a sabbatical - he did receive honoraria along with a Milken Family educator award, which was worth $25,000.

That year, he says simply, "a phenomenal experience, a grand opportunity to see my profession from every angle."

Structure and Discipline

One of the reasons for his selection is his philosophy of education: "You’ve got to make kids feel that school is a wonderful place where they can feel whole and accepted, where they can learn and meet with success and encouragement - and where they can have fun in the process."

For Andy, "It’s very exciting to work with kids not yet sullied, who are still wide-eyed and open. And it’s very gratifying to see the progress they’ve made at the end of a year." To make progress, he believes, "children need to play and to enjoy what they’re doing. I use a lot of music and a lot of movement in my class - you ever see a five- or a six-year-old sitting still? - to make learning fun."

All is not fun and games, however. "You have to teach children that there are things that are acceptable and things that are not, and for these there are consequences. You have to have structure in your life, you have to have discipline, both of which I learned in the Marines."

Baumgartner, who himself suffers from an attention deficit, has had to learn to overcome this disorder and not let it interfere with his teaching. "Out of our greatest struggles," he says, "come our greatest victories."

He is hoping that his 24-year-old son, the second of his three children, will learn the same. "This is my boy who had a great deal of difficulty in school, from kindergarten on," Andy says. "He did a lot of battling till he turned 18. And he battled some more trying to find himself.

"Then he met a nice girl and he suddenly began to mature. And one day he came home and said to me, ‘Dad, I have to do something important with my life. I joined the Marines.’

"Sure, his mother and I are worried and concerned - he’s awaiting orders that may send him to Bosnia or to Colombia - but we’re also proud and glad he’s found a way to find himself and to find success."

Kind of like his father has.

Image Credit: http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/1999/04/18/met_259312.shtml#.WeUncRNSxDU

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