Art Almquist lied to his students, and it kills him.
Almquist, who teaches theater at Tucson High Magnet School, got a call from People magazine about a month ago to inform him he had won the Reader’s Choice award in the national publication’s Teacher of the Year competition.
But they swore him to secrecy. His students — many of whom had organized get-out-the-vote campaigns through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr after the nominations were announced in August — asked him constantly if he had heard anything.
“The worst was not being able to tell the students,” Almquist said Wednesday morning, shortly after People gave him the go-ahead to make it public. The winners list appeared on People.com Wednesday.
“They were a big part of it. I hated to lie to them.”
This is the second year People has presented Teacher of the Year awards, given for excellence in teaching, and the first that it had a Reader's Choice category.
Almquist and his wife, Amy, leave for New York City today for a presentation and an awards luncheon on Friday. “I had to buy a suit,” Almquist said with a laugh. “I haven’t done that in 20 years.”
Teachers from across the country had been nominated for the honor. The magazine editors had narrowed the voluminous number of Reader’s Choice nominations to six, and then posted them on the website and asked readers to vote.
“Thousands upon thousands of people voted,” said a spokesperson for the magazine.
On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before Almquist was to begin rehearsal for a student production, he announced the award to his student actors, though social networking had seen to it that they already knew. Still, loud cheering and enthusiastic applause followed.
For the next several minutes, whenever anyone said “teacher of the year,” the students erupted in cheers again. It was a bit like going to a show at The Gaslight Theatre, where the hero is cheered whenever he pops up on stage.
The award comes with a $1,000 prize for Almquist and $4,000 for the school, both to be presented by People at a school assembly on Monday.
Five other entries were also tapped for the Teacher of the Year honor, though they were picked by a panel of educators from the narrowed-down nominations. They will be joining Almquist for the New York City festivities.
“He has built a cutting-edge theater program rarely seen on the high school level,” the People.com announcement said about Almquist. “To Almquist, known for staging productions on topics such as AIDS, environmental activism and immigration, theater offers a way to teach his students a variety of skills that go beyond acting.”
But it is his creative teaching skills and strong empathy for students that made so many of them vote so often.
“I can’t remember how many times I voted for Mr. Almquist,” said Keisha Downing, a 17-year-old THMS senior.
“He’s been such an inspiration to me. … Whenever I had problems, I could go to him. He’s like a second father to me. He would encourage me. And he’s such a sweet person.”
There’s a momentary lull among the students, and Nicolle Aragon, a junior, speaks up.
“Can I read what my mom said on Facebook?” she asks Almquist and her classmates.
“Congratulations to Tucson High and more important Mr. Art Almquist, an amazing educator and drama instructor,” Nicolle’s mother, Dawn Landis Lopez, wrote.
“You make a difference every day.”
Lopez said later on the phone that Almquist’s work is inspirational to the students and the parents.
Nicolle, 16, echoes her mother.
Three years ago, she was a shy freshman at the school, nervous and slightly withdrawn.
“He made it really comfortable,” she said of Almquist. “The way he runs class, it feels like family. He made it so much easier.”
“I’ve watched him teach,” said THMS’ principal, Clarice Clash. “His lesson clarity, his ability to motivate students, his instructional precision is unparalleled.”
Almquist is grateful for the accolades. But teaching, he says, is his biggest honor.
“I love seeing the spark of excitement and connection that happens in students when they are working on a scene or doing improv or having that moment that just clicks,” he says.
“I feel in doing that, I am bringing hope to the world.”