Life as a teacher didn't start out that way
WINONA — There is irony in Dwayne Voegeli's position as one of 10 finalists for Minnesota's Teacher of the Year award.
For much of this Winona Senior High School teacher's early life, the idea of becoming an educator couldn't have been further from his mind. Growing up on a Wisconsin farm that went bankrupt, Voegeli was interested in work that paid well.
"I wanted to have money. I didn't want to worry about money," he recalled.
The desire was also in sync with the times. Voegeli came of age in the Reagan era, when Gordon Gekko's "Greed is Good" mantra and Michael J. Fox's smart-dressed Alex P. Keaton of "Family Ties" fame were cultural touchstones. The spirit of the times emphasized the making of money. And Voegeli imagined a career as a diplomat or international businessman, not as a teacher on a limited salary.
Indeed, when an aptitude test pointed to teaching as a possible career, Voegeli scoffed at the notion. Part of his resistance, Voegeli said, was rooted in concerns over a speech impediment that gave him a dread of public speaking.
"At the time, I laughed at the idea," he said. "My two most terrifying classes in school were eighth-grade speech and 10th-grade speech. I'm still not a great public speaker."
College and life experiences changed him. Voegeli went to college at George Washington University, where he found that the experiences outside of college often could be more meaningful in terms of life lessons than what was being said in the lecture halls. He got a job as a waiter, an experience that helped him conquer his shyness and his fear of speaking with people.
Ever the idealist, Voegeli sloughed off some of his more youthful ambitions. He spent more time in the library. He had gone to George Washington determined to become a U.S. foreign service officer and make the world a better place. But he saw a world less amenable to change, one in which government and business were so intertwined that true change, he decided, would not come from the top down, but from the bottom up — at the local government level and in classrooms.
In his senior year of college, Voegeli did something that surprised his parents: He dropped out of school to help found a student peace movement to protest the 1991 Iraq Gulf war. In two months, his group built a network of protesters extending across 116 college campuses.
The war came and went. Voegeli returned to school to take classes in the spring and summer to complete his degree. The decision put him further in debt, but Voegeli expresses no regrets about the decision.
"It was actually a powerful time in my life," he said.
That idealism lives on in Voegeli's classroom, in ways both big and small. He has involved students in raising money for everything from building a preschool in Vietnam to installing solar panels at the high school. He does the less weighty stuff, too. For the last 14 years, Voegeli has run an Ultimate Frisbee tournament for students.
In the classroom, he gives priority to learning the name of every student two days into a semester, using an alliterative mnemonic device that pairs a student's name with a food item, such as Darrell Doritos and Shawn Spaghetti.
Kelly Jansen, a WSHS assistant principal, said teachers are "unsung heroes." Voegel's recognition as one of 10 finalist for Teacher of the Year is reminder of what goes in the class.
"He really gets to know students and gets to know what makes them tick and finds a way to make them want to learn," Jansen said.
Having visited the Berlin Wall soon after it was torn down, Voegeli is big-time believer in the life-changing potential of travel. A standing offer he regularly makes to students is to place $75 into a a student's savings account to be used for an international trip. In the 14 years he has made the pledge, only a handful so far have taken him up on the offer. He is currently organizing a summer trip to Egypt with 18 students.
Emily Antoff, a 16-year-old WSHS junior, said what makes Voegeli a great teacher is his willingness to deal with students on a personal level, a trait not shared by all teachers.
"He does all the really cool stuff with diversity and with the green group," Antoff
Married to Denine and the father of two children, Voegeli is hardly a slacker outside of class. He started the Green Party in Winona, has helped organize Earth Day events and has been a member of the Winona County Commission for the last eight years.
Like a lot of idealists, Voegeli has occasionally found himself tilting at windmills. When he tried to stop Wal-Mart from building one of its big box stores in Winona, he was virtually trampled by the stampede of prospective shoppers.
"I didn't realize how many people like or love Wal-Mart. That was a good example of me fight a losing battle, oh my gosh," he said.
But with Voegeli, the point isn't necessarily about winning or losing. It's about being in the arena, about raising one's voice, even in dissent — especially in dissent.
"Change does not start in D.C.," Voegeli said. "Change does not start in St. Paul. It never has and it never will. Change always starts with local schmucks like you and me."