Tom Burford is the Middle School Educator of the Year
March 17, 2013
In a corner of a Snoqualmie Middle School classroom, Gary Larson is drawing the father of our country, twirling on the dance floor by himself, clutching his knees.
The caption reads, “George Washington: general, president, visionary, break-dancer.”
It may look out of place in a place of learning, but this is Tom Burford’s classroom: coach, teacher, salesman, goofball.
“He’s energetic,” eighth-grader Gavin Gorrell said of Burford, the 2013 Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation’s Middle School Educator of the Year. “He makes class entertaining and you never know what to expect.”
Classmate Max Bonda agreed, saying that with Burford, “You are always learning new stuff.”
Proof of that is in the corner opposite the one with Larson’s cartoon, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne carries the Duke’s quote, “Life is tough, a lot tougher when you’re stupid.”
“I only know that quote because of you,” eighth-grader Katie Larson told Burford, who teaches social studies, normally a subject associated with excitement the same way cardboard is.
Students like eighth-grader Sidney Huntley said Burford makes class memorable.
“You’re not just reading from a book,” he said. Larson — Katie, not Gary — agreed.
“His class is really fun. It’s serious and you get the work done, but he does it in a light and understanding way,” she said.
Burford stepped into another room while his students talked about him. Then, from the same room, he dissected his relationship with his charges.
“I enjoy working with the kids,” he said. “It keeps me young. Some teachers say it makes them old. It makes me young. They say the most incredible things.”
What Burford enjoys the most about the job is what he calls watching the light bulb pop on.
“That makes my day,” he said. “When they understand something, when they make the connection, I love watching that happen.”
Burford called himself “humbled” by the foundation’s award.
“I don’t teach in a vacuum,” he said. “I have great people working with me, pushing me, cajoling me.”
A onetime copier salesman in the Midwest, he left that career in 1990, he said, when he would not transfer to Minnesota, “the frozen tundra” as he called it.
By then, he had coached baseball and other sports for 10 years, so when his friends suggested a career change, they didn’t have far to look.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you become the teacher you have always been?’” Burford said.
As a copier salesman, he said, he learned one valuable lesson. After hundreds of cold calls, standing up in front of a room of eighth-graders looks easy.
“I’m still selling a product,” he said. “It’s an intangible product called education.”
His career as an educator started as a teaching assistant for a junior kindergarten at a private school in Missouri. In a way, he has never left that first classroom. The only difference is, he said, he can’t put the children he teaches now on a timeout.
Dealing with children is easy, it’s dealing with federal and state requirements that make the job tough, he added.
“The tail is wagging the dog sometimes,” he said.
Nevertheless, the frustration disappears quickly from his voice. He has stories to tell. And stories about the stories.
“Nobody got hooked onto history by reading a textbook,” he said. “That’s the reason I tell stories.”
Stories abound in another corner of his room, the one with the airplane barf bag, the sombrero, the pig in Alcatraz stripes and the stuffed bird from the Galapagos Islands.
Burford tells his students leaving class early to go on vacation trips that they have to come back with something for their teacher. The stuffed bird is called a booby, which always draws snickers from the roomful of middle schoolers.
“I always try to start with a bit of humor,” he said. “There’s always something stupid going on in the world.”
And if nothing is, chances are something was. This day’s lesson talked about the Andrew Jackson era and the preamble to the Civil War.
“You watch out for this guy,” Burford told his students about the seventh vice president of the U.S., secessionist John C. Calhoun. “He’s crazy.”
His students may disagree as to who’s crazy, but they kept listening.
“He makes the class actually fun,” eighth-grader Alexie Walker said. “We actually understand what happened and how it happened.”