Teacher surprised with prestigious award

January 5, 2019

Students at Munger Mountain Elementary School waited in suspense for a secret assembly Friday morning. Hearing only that a “special guest” would arrive, students wondered who it could be: Recently spotted actress Jennifer Aniston? Former first lady Michelle Obama? The school’s mascot, a “real” wolf?

The celebrity, it turned out, came from closer to home — a teacher in their midst, Chris Bessonette, who won the Milken Educator Award with much fanfare.

The national award recognizes excellence in teaching. There are only 40 given out annually, and Bessonette is the only recipient in Wyoming. The award includes a $25,000 prize.

“It’s pretty overwhelming and shocking,” he said shortly after the ceremony.

Bessonette is in his first year of teaching second grade at Munger Mountain, the only dual immersion school in the state. He previously taught kindergarten for six years in the Teton County School District No. 1 as well as at Journeys School of Teton Science Schools. His students affectionately call him Mr. Chris. To Karsten Bessonette, 9, his fourth-grade son at the school, he’s just Dad.

Students were heavily involved in the presentation of Bessonette’s award. They held up the numbers 2 and 5 and then kept adding zeros. With each additional number — $25, $250, $2,500 and finally $25,000 — their shrieks got louder. When Bessonette was announced as the winner, he was sitting on the floor of the gym trying to keep his class orderly. They immediately swarmed him for a big group hug.

“My advice to all of you lobos [the school mascot in Spanish] out there is to find what makes you the happiest in your life and go and do that,” Bessonette said. “As a teacher, that’s one of the things I’ve found in my life is I love teaching because I love working with you all.”

Ever the teacher, Bessonnette turned the celebratory moment into a life lesson for students.

“If you can find things that make you come alive, whatever it is, and if you get to do it every day or many days of your lives, then you will live a happy, fulfilled, inspired life,” he said. “That’s what I hope you all find in your lives, so go out and do it.”

Bessonette said he was inspired to become an educator by his parents, who are both principals in Oregon.

“Growing up watching them find a good balance between pouring their heart into their work but still having time with us, that was really cool,” Bessonette said. “My parents were both really influential in my life.”

The Milken Educator Award is referred to by Teacher Magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching.” Bessonette was recognized for his focus on vocabulary development, his contagious positive attitude and his hard work to embed sociocultural competence in his lessons.

His students’ state assessments improved by 20 percent from winter to spring, and when he taught kindergarten, 85 percent of his students were reading on grade level by the end of the year.

“Chris activates the learning in each student through his hands-on and personal approach,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said in a press release. “Chris is a leader in dual immersion education and actively pursues best practices to help his young learners thrive and launch them into a lifelong love of learning.”

Pomp and circumstance dominated the morning, making the assembly special for the students. It was their first all-school assembly in the gym and perhaps the first time male teachers like Bessonette were told to wear ties.

Representatives from the local school board, the Wyoming Legislature, the Milken Family Foundation, past award winners and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow were all in attendance.

“This is a big, big, big deal,” Balow said.

In a press release, she added that “You won’t find a better ESL [English as a second language] champion than Chris Bessonette. His enthusiasm is contagious. His students are thriving. His passion to pass on what he has learned is firmly rooted in a belief that being fluent in two languages opens doors.”

All that, she said, makes Bessonette “a Wyoming treasure.”

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