The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003

VVA’s John Pieper Honored with National Teaching Award


If anything seemed not a surprise, it was that John Pieper, president of VVA Chapter 437 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would become a teacher. Along with his parents, step-parents, and sister, the family has produced an aggregate of 180 years in education. After his discharge from the Navy and graduation from college, teaching seemed very much in the cards. That he would one day win one of the most prestigious awards in American education--the Disney American Teacher Award--was something else again.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Pieper said. "I didn’t believe it for days. Knowing the level of excellence involved for selection, I felt it was like winning the lottery. What are your chances? You never look at yourself as rating up there with the best. At least I didn’t.’’

Given by the Walt Disney Company, the award recognizes teachers "who construct creative learning environments in which students and teachers alike explore, imagine and engage in a variety of thought-provoking experiences.’’

Thirty-two teachers are selected from more than 185,000 nominations made anonymously by students, parents, educators, and community members. All 32 award winners receive $10,000; their schools receive $5,000.

The teachers also participate in a professional development program focused on innovative approaches to teaching and learning and leadership development provided by The Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. The teachers and their principals will attend a workshop in October at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and for the next two years will work with Disney Worldwide Outreach and The Center for Collaborative Education.

In a statement given to Disney, Pieper’s principal, Patricia Vickman, said: "Someone once said, ' We are nothing until someone comes into our life and touches our hearts. It is only then that we begin to feel, to create, and to be.’ How fortunate for our school and the city of Oshkosh that John touches our lives.’’

Given the long education tradition of his family, Pieper said teaching called to him early in life.

"I had pretty much set my sights on education when I was young,’’ he said. "When I came out of the service, I looked where the jobs were. At that time, I was interested in special education. It was a relatively new field and it was wide open. I pursued the special education field in the elementary and middle school areas.’’

Pieper served for four years as a Navy helicopter crewmen. Trained as an aviation anti-submarine warfare operator, he also had paramedic and rescue training. He cites his military experience as playing a key role in his work in special education, a particularly demanding field.

"I worked with severely emotionally disturbed kids for about ten years and three years ago I burned out,’’ he said. "The average burnout rate was something between 18 months and three years, but I lasted ten. I think that longevity in many ways is connected to my military service. A lot of it has to do with perspective, attitude, learning to deal with the stress the way you do in the military, making do with what you have, and being flexible. Those are attributes that got me through a lot of situations when I was working with some of those tough kids.’’

Now teaching fifth graders, Pieper has been in education for 21 years. He said fifth grade is a time when children are still excited enough about learning "that you can reach them but they’re not too old that they think they know everything.’’

He does much of his work outside the classroom, often with parents.

"Being a good teacher requires a lot of different things,’’ Pieper said. "I think a lot of my success has been due to my efforts to reach out to parents. I look at my job as being more than just in the classroom. I’m kind of a throwback to the old neighborhood schools where everyone knew everyone and everyone looked out after everybody else. I think nothing of going to a parent’s house and they’ll invite me in and we’ll talk. Those kinds of interactions help in the performance of the kids.’’

His class day, spent with 23 students, is broken up into 40-minute blocks covering reading, social studies, science, math, language, spelling, computer labs, and health. He notes that he works in a field--elementary school teaching--that traditionally is dominated by women. Pieper says having a male in the classroom at the elementary school is critically important.

"I came from a family in which my parents were divorced when I was very young,’’ he said. "My dad was always in my life, but not in the sense of a traditional family, and I think that had an influence on me, too. As long as I’ve been in education, I’ve thought there weren’t enough men teachers; there’s not enough of a positive male presence in those early grades. I see the difference a man can make all the time and it’s not just with the boys, either. So many of the children today don’t have fathers at home or don’t see their fathers much because when Dad comes home from work he’s too tired to interact with the kids. So in school, the kids have an interaction with a male six or seven hours a day that brings out a lot of good.’’

The father of two sons himself, Pieper did not become involved in much extracurricular activity until his boys were out of school. In 1997 he joined VVA, one of the first organizations he sought out. He has arranged for school children and veterans to cooperate in projects such as the Orange Blossom fund-raising events related to Agent Orange. VVA began a scholarship program in Winnebago County six years ago, and veterans frequently go to the schools to present programs on the Vietnam War.

Pieper said having veterans in the schools broadens the educational experience for the students and teachers.

"A lot of the younger teachers weren’t born when the Vietnam War was going on,’’ he said. "We have history teachers who have no perspective of that. It’s really important that we carry on in getting that information to the kids.’’

A personal challenge--a lifelong speech impediment--presented itself when he began casting about for outside activities, too.

"One of the challenges I’ve had in my life was a lisp,’’ he said. "I was scared to death of talking in front of people, and I wanted to get past it. Storytelling was a natural outlet for it. I got involved with it and had a lot of fun with it. I would love to do it on a more regular basis, go around to schools, work with teachers.’’

In 1998, he was the featured speaker at the Wisconsin Storytellers Convention.

Pieper had no inkling that the Disney award was coming. Even now, he says, he tries to put it in the back of his mind, but it won’t stay there.

"It still hasn’t hit me and it probably won’t for a long time,’’ he said. "But suddenly I’ll get this warm rush, and I’ll think, ' Hey, this is really cool.’ ’’


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