What student gets the chance to meet a U.S. president, Hawaiian princess, Greek philosopher, or German professor of theology face to face, not mention a whole cast of other historical characters?
Goessel High School students have met them all through the dramatic teaching style one could characterize as the Wes Schmidt-Tieszen experience.
Schmidt-Tieszen (or Mr. S-T as many call him), a longtime social studies teacher known for his use of role-playing as a learning tool, recently was inducted into the Kansas Teachers’ Hall of Fame.
Mr. S-T said he was overwhelmed and humbled in many ways last week when he learned of the honor. He also experienced mixed feelings
“It is quite an honor, and maybe it’s too early for me to really understand what it means,” Mr. S-T said. “There are so many teachers who clearly deserve it, too, but unfortunately don’t receive the recognition. At least there are people out there that said, ‘Yeah, he is doing what needed to be done,’ but life and school have gone on and there really hasn’t been much time for it to sink in.”
Tabor Mennonite Church associate pastor Katherine Goerzen, a 2003 GHS graduate, remembered vividly when Mr. S-T dressed up and taught as the Greek philosopher Socrates.
“My favorite was Ancient Greece,” Goerzen said. “He engaged us in heavy simulation. We divided into city-states and got to wear [chitons] the Greek equivalent of the toga. It was very influential on me. It’s one thing that I have used with Bible studies. We divide into houses of the church and the kids get to dress up.”
She also appreciated Mr. S-T’s multi-perspective approach to the role-playing.
“He helped me shape my own world view, and part of that is to think beyond the stories we are told, to the stories we are not told,” she said. “He embodies that which you hope for in all teachers. He taught us to ask good questions, not just memorize facts.”
Goessel Superintendent John Fast said Mr. S-T is highly respected in the classroom by many students.
“Kids say he is a rigorous and demanding teacher who has high expectations but also gives ample and generous support,” Fast said. “He is also known for his fairness in examining day-to-day issues from all sides.”
Mr. S-T said he didn’t set out to be that way but he hoped the assessment was accurate.
High expectations of students can push some to perform at an elevated level, he said, but he wasn’t always that way.
“When I came out of high school years ago, I had a rude awakening at Bethel College,” Mr. S-T said. “I really struggled to begin with, and looking back I could say I was not prepared. I had always been satisfied with just being so-so and only doing what I had to do to get by.”
Mr. S-T said students need to know how hard they’ll have to work to succeed after high school. For him, part of preparing students has been reaching them with upward of 15 historical characters.
“I never found social studies that exciting, and it made me want to find ways to make it more engaging,” he said. “Over time different characters just sort of developed — everything from Martin Luther with the Reformation to a Japanese emperor defending why they attacked Pearl Harbor.”
He said he usually tries to play significant people in history, interesting characters with lesser-known or humorous quirks.
Some of his characters were imagined personas that represented certain perspectives regarding specific historical events.
He’s played a Cuban revolutionary speaking about when the U.S. invaded Cuba. Moments later, he changes clothes to become cigar-chomping President Theodore Roosevelt justifying going into Cuba.
“I also do female characters and use goofy voices — I do a high falsetto as best I can,” he said. “If you make yourself vulnerable they’ll like you and listen to you, but the purpose isn’t entertainment. It gets their interest, and you hope the lesson sink in.”
In addition to his teaching duties, he coached Scholars Bowl teams for about 12 years, 11 of which went to state and one of which won state in 2015. He also sponsored the senior class and sponsored a simulated model United Nations event for Goessel students in Topeka.
Mr. S-T, 63, will retire at the end of the school year, his 28th at Goessel.
“If not now, then when?” he said. “I’m tired. I’ve had great career here and I have enjoyed it immensely. It just takes a lot of energy and so on and so forth, and long with that, I don’t want to be the person who really should have finished a couple years ago. It is unfair to the kids. They should expect a teacher who is on top of things, and I think I still am. It just feels like its time.”
The formal KTHF induction ceremony will be in June in Dodge City.