Learning by magic: Baraboo kindergarten teacher earns state title

October 4, 2018

Baraboo native and kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Gulden has experienced peak moments in the past year, culminating two weeks ago in a ceremony at the state Capitol that she said was among the “top 10” highlights of her life.

State schools Superintendent Tony Evers recognized Gulden, who teaches at Gordon L. Willson Elementary School, as Wisconsin’s 2019 Elementary School Teacher of the Year on Sept. 20. Before that, Gulden experienced another “top 10” moment when Evers announced her award in front of the entire school at a May assembly.

“There are several days that I need to pinch myself and realize that this is happening to me,” she said.

She was chosen out of a pool of 86 Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Teacher Fellowship recipients.

“I’m just so honored,” Gulden said. “I feel always that I’m just a small sampling of the great teaching that happens in our state at the elementary level.”

Gordon L. Willson Principal Amy Fassbender sees the recognition as well-deserved, noting the hard work Gulden has put in to help her students, including collaborating with other teachers and growing professionally.

“I think that there are definitely teachers that are passionate about what they are doing, but there is a level of commitment where Liz will do whatever it takes for her students,” Fassbender said.

Hired in Baraboo right out of college, Gulden is in her 14th year of teaching kindergarten. She spent her first five years with the district teaching at West Kindergarten Center and the next nine at Gordon L. Willson.

In that time, Gulden has distinguished herself by taking on leadership roles such as becoming a math coach, mentoring other school staff and championing “sight word learning,” where students learn words by engaging multiple senses. She incorporates a blend of different activities in her teaching, using technology, writing and hands-on learning. And all the while, she tries to focus on the positive.

“My main goal is for the kids to be engaged in what they’re doing and having fun at the same time … where the learning seems to almost happen by magic,” she said. “They’re having fun with their activities, and they just happen to be gaining a lot of knowledge along the way.”

She’s also conscientious of Baraboo’s diversity and tries to make sure her classroom is inclusive. She recently earned an English Learner certificate through a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh program, which teaches strategies that are useful with English language learners as well as all other elementary students, Gulden wrote in an email.

Students who come from families speaking languages other than English often are sent home with materials in multiple languages, so their parents have the tools to support their children’s learning, Gulden said. Her knowledge of Spanish, while not fluent, allows her to better communicate with Spanish-speaking families.

She said as a 2000 Baraboo graduate, she takes pride in her work serving the families and community of Baraboo and “it makes it that much more special that I get to come back and work here.”

In 2013, she won Baraboo School District’s annual Distinguished Elementary Teacher Award. Two years ago, an administrator nominated her for the fellowship that made her eligible for Teacher of the Year.

Gulden credits the teachers, administrators and staff members she works with for helping her accomplish so much, noting “none of us do this job alone.”

“Some of my colleagues are just the most compassionate and caring people I know. They don’t hesitate to give their all in terms of time and energy into this job. And I’m sure that’s similar to a lot of districts, but I just feel like there’s something really special here,” she said.

Fassbender echoed the sentiment but emphasized Gulden’s effect on her colleagues.

“She just has this positive attitude and persona that’s just — it’s contagious. It makes other people want to continue trying,” she said. “I feel like Liz inspires other teachers to want to continue doing their very best.”

A statewide committee consisting of parents, educators and community leaders must have agreed. The committee usually chooses four recipients per year to honor with the Teacher of the Year title — one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and a fourth in special services — though two high school recipients were chosen this year.

Only one other Baraboo teacher has been awarded the title: Jane McMahon, an instructional facilitator, was the 2013 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year. Coincidentally, she was Gulden’s English teacher in the mid-1990s.

Like the other honorees, Gulden received $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation and will serve on the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Council, which meets with state education officials three times per year to collaborate on educational needs in the state. She’s brimming with ideas aimed at instilling students with a love of learning while they’re young and is hoping to work on a state initiative to incentivize elementary school teachers to stay in the field.

Gulden declined to divulge specifics on her plans for the award money but said it will be used to benefit all Gordon L. Willson students. As for her future, she wants to continue working on “making school life great” for Baraboo children and families.

She’s certainly already made an impact, Fassbender said.

“I feel like she shows other families, community members, people in the state just really the power that teachers have in the lives of students and their families and the community,” Fassbender said.

In the words of Ava Henderson, one of Gulden’s 5-year-old students, “Miss Gulden’s the best.”

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