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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 - Page updated at 06:32 PM

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Information in this article, originally published April 25, 2007, was corrected May 2, 2007. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Scholastic Inc. was the sponsor of the National Teacher of the Year Program. It is sponsored by ING, a global financial-services firm.

Granite Falls educator is nation's Teacher of the Year

Times Snohomish County Bureau

When Granite Falls music teacher Andrea Peterson received the first of her big awards — state Teacher of the Year — she immediately thought of her father.

Peterson, who now has been named the nation's Teacher of the Year, says these awards are a testament to all she learned from him.

"Why not him?" the 33-year-old asked herself when she was named state Teacher of the Year. After all, it was her father — a special-education and wood-shop teacher for 40 years — who provided the inspiration and example of the difference a teacher can make in students' lives, Peterson said. Over the years, he invited students home to dinner, intervened in difficult personal circumstances, even had students live with the family when they had no other place to go.

"A talented student is a teacher's ultimate reward. As a daughter, I'm his ultimate student," Peterson said.

Thursday, Peterson will receive her national award from President Bush during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden that will include the top teachers from the other states and U.S. territories.

"It's incredibly humbling," Peterson said of this honor, the first by a teacher from Washington in 37 years. And as she travels the nation over the next year as an ambassador for her profession, she'll tell everyone who listens to her that teaching is about more than just the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and other standardized testing, that it's about recognizing students' growth and finding ways to connect with their lives.

Granite Falls parent Lynne Bansemer recalled her daughter Kyla's last concert at Monte Cristo Elementary School after three years in Peterson's choir and music classes.

"Andrea was crying. The sixth-graders were crying. They respected her so much, and they had established such a bond."

Colleagues praise Peterson as an impressive combination of intellect and heart, possessing the analytical skills to target her instruction to each student as well as the musical gifts to inspire excellence and make learning fun.

"She's a fabulous teacher," said Jenny Price, who also teaches music in the 2,200-student Granite Falls district in the North Cascades foothills. "She asks great questions, musical questions, to get students thinking more deeply."


Peterson built the district's music program from 18 recorders and an empty classroom into a vibrant part of the schools' curriculum. The 33-year-old plays almost every instrument in the orchestra and also sings, composes music and writes lyrics for her students on subjects as diverse as ocean ecology and Shakespeare.

She has written musicals about topics from the U.S. Constitution and the explorations of Lewis and Clark to literary works such as "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Her once-empty classroom at Monte Cristo now brims with African drums, xylophones, choral music and a piano from behind which, before her recent maternity leave, she regularly led students in song. At her home in Everett, portraits of jazz greats now share the family room with baby car seats and a baby floor gym.

At a time when critics complain that standardized testing in core academic subjects is marginalizing arts education, Peterson works with classroom teachers to complement and reinforce their lessons.

"Music isn't a subsidiary subject in Granite Falls. It's part of everything we do," said Superintendent Joel Thaut, who nominated Peterson for state Teacher of the Year, which led to the national award.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson said she was thrilled that an arts educator was recognized for the national honor.

"Andrea will bring a new focus to the critical importance of arts education. She offers a perfect example of how the arts can be an integral part of learning," Bergeson said.

When she addresses the president and other top teachers, Peterson's comments will likely mirror her teaching philosophy, in which a student's accomplishments are praised much more than shortcomings are highlighted.

"If you have a fourth-grader who's reading at a second-grade level who shows up at your school, works hard, raises her reading by a year-and-a-half but still ends up not passing the WASL, you have to tell her she didn't meet standards," Peterson said. "That's wrong. It teaches the child she's a failure.

"We need standards, some benchmark of ability," she said, acknowledging the president's No Child Left Behind Act, with its mandates for standardized testing and sanctions for schools that don't make steady improvement in student test scores. "But we also need some recognition that this student has done an amazing thing."

Peterson said she'd like to see the high-stakes, once-a-year WASL replaced, or at least supplemented, with a system that honors student growth.

1st winner since '70

The last time a Washington teacher won the national award was 1970, when Johnnie Dennis, a physics and math teacher from Walla Walla, was the recipient.

The winner is chosen by a 14-member committee, including representatives from many major education organizations. The program is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and is sponsored by ING, a global financial services company.

Peterson wasn't able to attend the final interviews back East in early March because she was nine months pregnant. Instead, she participated via video conference from an office in the Everett School District. Two days later, she learned she had been selected.

Saturday, she flew to Washington, D.C., a city she had never visited, with her 4-week-old daughter, Faith, her husband, Joel, and her parents, Victor and Darlene Rahn. For the next year, she'll be on paid leave and travel around the country as an ambassador for the teaching profession.

Peterson was born in Invermere, B.C., before her family moved to California, then Colorado. She arrived in Washington as a high-school senior when her father took a teaching job in Onalaska, near Centralia.

Peterson gained citizenship in 2004, so she could vote for ballot measures, such as school-district finance levies, that she supported and promoted.

She double-majored in music and music education at the University of Washington and was the first Washington teacher to earn National Board Certification as an early- and middle-childhood music specialist.

She has played the saxophone since fifth grade and performs with the Northwest Wind Symphony.

Her first job out of college was in Granite Falls, a former mining and lumber town that's now a bedroom community for many residents who work along the Interstate 5 corridor.

"Ultimate student"

Peterson has joked that her choice of a career was preordained. Her father, Victor Rahn, has taught for almost 40 years. Two sisters-in-law and her mother-in-law are teachers, her mother is a librarian, and her two brothers are musicians. Her husband plays the trumpet.

"People all over the greater Centralia area are leading productive lives because Victor Rahn said, 'I care what happens to you. I'm interested in your life,' " Peterson said.

While her father acknowledges the example he may have set, he said Peterson's intelligence, articulateness and warmth make her stand out among her peers.

"She's all about helping kids," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company



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