Troy High teacher named Michigan history educator of the year

‘I live this. I’m very passionate about what I teach’

By: Jonathan Shead | Troy Times | Published August 13, 2021

 Troy High School teacher Ryan Werenka was named Michigan’s 2021 History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Troy High School teacher Ryan Werenka was named Michigan’s 2021 History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Photo provided by the Troy School District

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TROY — It’s been a few weeks since he first heard the news, but Troy High School teacher Ryan Werenka is still surprised he earned the title of Michigan History Teacher of the Year for 2021 by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

“I’m still a little shocked and surprised, to be 100% honest,” he said. “It definitely is the cherry on top of a very strange year, but a big component of what I really tried to do this year — there was such a large focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of students. I really, more than any other year, made that a big component of my classes.”

As a 22-year veteran of the Troy School District, Werenka said, the award provides some “validation for everything I tried to do this year for my students.”

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was founded in 1994 to promote American history education through programs and resources for K-12 students and the general public.

The history teacher awards, which began in 2004, highlight one teacher from each state, as well as the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and other United States territories. This year, a record-breaking 8,510 teachers were nominated nationwide.

A couple nominations from his students started Werenka’s journey to being awarded the honor.

“I really tried to build that connection with students. That was the whole reason why I put in an application for the award. I’ve never throughout my career been one who’s asked for (or) chased awards. It was only because some of my students nominated me that I said, ‘If they took the time to do that, I owe it to them to put in the application materials.’”

It was more than just the connection he’s made with students, however, that caught the eye of the Michigan Council for History Education’s board of directors, who ultimately chose Werenka as this year’s winner.

“Ryan’s commitment to exposing students to multiple viewpoints in his lesson planning, especially those of marginalized and underrepresented groups, helped make his application for the Michigan History Teacher of the Year award stand out,” Council for History Education Board member Nick Orlowski said in an email. “The selection committee appreciated how he not only engaged students with primary sources but did so creatively to better spark student engagement and interest.”

Werenka admittedly realizes some students may come into his classes thinking they’ll only be learning about “a bunch of dead white guys,” he said, but by threading current events and topics into his lesson plans, he’s able to connect the dots for his students.

“You can actually relate constitutional issues to what’s going on right now. … A lot of times, it’s finding things in the news that relate to them, and then showing them,” he said. “My big thing is I really want them to understand their country and to empower them to understand how to use their voice and their platform, and to be active participants in the community, voters, all those things.”

Finding those current events to tie into the curriculum often comes after the final bell has rung for the day or for the summer for teachers like Werenka, who said the work doesn’t stop when school does. The summer is when he feels most busy — teaching summer school, attending conferences and workshops, and going through new reading materials.

“I think I’ve knocked down about 10 books already this summer, and I’m going to try to finish about two more before the school year starts,” he said, adding that he just returned from a National Constitution Center workshop and has a new, five-day workshop with the George Washington Teachers Institute in the coming days.

“To do this, and to do it at a high level, I’ve always found you need to put in the time and preparation and constantly be learning, yourself. … I live this. I’m very passionate about what I teach.”

As part of Werenka’s award, he will receive a $1,000 prize, and the Troy High School history department will receive a core archive of American history books and Gilder Lehrman education materials in Werenka’s name.

“Those are materials that my colleagues are all going to have access to, obviously. They provide so many fantastic resources. It’s something I think will benefit not only my students, but all of the students taking social studies classes,” he said, adding that the money will most likely be reinvested into his classroom.

Werenka taught advanced placement U.S. government and politics, AP comparative government and politics, and other government civics classes during the 2020-21 school year. This upcoming year, he’ll teach AP U.S. government, AP comparative government, a political science elective, and a constitutional law class.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University in 2000 and completed his master’s degree in teaching from Marygrove College in 2004. Troy School District teacher Zach MacIntosh, who teaches eighth grade at Baker Middle School, was honored as Michigan’s history teacher of the year for 2020.

For more information or to nominate a teacher for the 2022 awards, visit gilderlehrman.org/nhtoy.

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