Sitting among a class of seniors at Fort Vancouver High School, Bethany Rivard listens to one of her students recite a heartbreaking poem about the private agony of one of America’s most beloved entertainers, the late Robin Williams.
Moments later, Rivard stands at the front of the classroom, reading aloud an autobiographical poem written by one of her students from the perspective of Malcolm X. The scene epitomizes what the job is all about for Rivard, a 40-year-old English teacher and one of nine finalists for this year’s Washington State Teacher of the Year Award.
“Teaching is about listening,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”
In Rivard’s classroom, everyone is an equal and everyone has a compelling story to tell. After nearly a decade teaching at the school, Rivard is trying some new tricks, adopting a discussion-based teaching style called the democratic classroom.
It’s a structure that fosters a more collaborative and open environment, where students help in making the rules, she said. And it promotes a system where everybody — teachers and students alike — becomes actively involved in the learning process.
“The idea is that all the students own the classroom and the teacher is not necessarily more important than anybody else,” Rivard said. “I think a lot of times, students are afraid to speak their truth, to talk about their background. This kind of teaching style is empowering, because it gives students a voice.”
Once a week, Rivard hosts meetings with her students so they can talk about what’s working in her new teaching style and how to weed out any problems. So far, the system has paid off, she said.
“Students really want to be more invested in their learning,” Rivard said. “This creates a trusting environment, and they start talking to one another more instead of me. It’s student-centered instead of teacher-centered.”
Rivard was surprised to find herself this year’s Teacher of the Year for the Educational Service District 112 region. The state winner will be announced at 1:30 p.m. today at a ceremony in Seattle.
Winning isn’t important, though, Rivard said. What really matters is that the nomination draws more attention to the good work her students are doing. And Rivard can thank Ken Roberts — an associate principal at Fort and himself the 2010 regional Teacher of the Year — for throwing her hat into the ring this year.
“Bethany is a highly motivated teacher who cares deeply about her students,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “She has spent her entire career as an educator finding ways to level the playing field for disadvantaged students, specifically undocumented students and those living in poverty, so that they can reach their highest potential.”
Rivard grew up in Montana as the eldest in a family of seven children, teaching her younger siblings essential skills, including how to read and tie their shoes. In adulthood, Rivard’s passion for social justice drew her toward environmental law, but it was those experiences with all her siblings that led her to become a teacher instead.
In her time at Fort — a school where more than 30 languages are spoken and nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches — Rivard has found a place to put her passion for social justice to work. Over the years, she’s become a leading advocate for her students in a number of ways, said fellow English teacher Ben Jatos.
“She is always willing to listen to them and either stand up for her kids or give them enough confidence to stand up for themselves,” Jatos wrote in a recent blog post proclaiming Rivard as the best teacher he’s ever met.
In the past decade, Rivard has served as an adviser for a number of student groups, most notably the Gay/Straight Alliance, Spoken Word Club and MEChA, an organization that promotes preparedness for college among Hispanic students.
“Each of those clubs is really about finding one’s voice,” Jatos wrote. “It’s what she does for kids.”