Theater teacher at River Ridge wins coveted education award

Staff writerDecember 21, 2012 

River Ridge High School theater teacher Leslie Van Leishout has won a Golden Apple, one of the most coveted education awards in the state.

“Each and every day, she reminds us students about having passion for the arts,” student Olivia Maassen wrote in her nomination letter for the award. “She is the epitome of what every teacher should be.”

Van Leishout, 56, will be honored with other winners during the 20th annual Golden Apple Awards show that will air on KCTS-9 in February. The award is competitive and is given to educators, programs and schools making a positive difference in the state. This year’s winners include seven individuals, two programs and three school districts.

A KCTS crew filmed Van Leishout’s work at the Lacey school this month to collect footage for the program.

Even though she teaches theater, she personally wasn’t fond of being in front of a camera for an entire day.

“I keep saying you should film the kids. I’ll just do a voice-over,” she said, with a laugh.

Van Leishout talked to The Olympian about her career and the award. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: I went to Pacifica High School in Southern California, where I was raised. I graduated from high school at age 16, and went to Cypress College, which is a community college, and Brigham Young University, where I earned a bachelor’s in teaching theater and history. I also have a master’s in educational leadership from Seattle Pacific University and a principal’s certificate.

Q: Tell us about your family.

A: I have been married for more than 32 years. I have six children ages 18-30, and a 2-year-old grandson.

Q: How did you get into theater and teaching?

A: I knew from the time I was in sixth grade that I wanted to be a teacher. I have dyslexia, and I’m sure to help me read better they asked me to be a reading helper for first-graders.

At the end of the year, they gave me a book with all of (the kids’) thoughts. As a sixth-grader I was so moved by this, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’

I thought I’d be a history teacher. I was taking all these history classes at the community college. My adviser said I had to have something else. … She said, ‘Have you thought about theater?’

The next Monday I went to my community college, and there were posters for auditions for a play.

That was the beginning of the end for me. I tried out for the play. I absolutely fell in love with the theater. I felt like I had a home and I knew everybody and it was a great source of joy for me. And I also could see a lot of power in teaching kids this way that’s a lot more personal.

I graduated and I ended up teaching at Provo High School, the town where I did my student teaching. I also worked for 12 years with the Washington Shakespeare Festival, overseeing their technical aspects.

… Then I did a lot of enrichment (programs) at elementary schools in the Olympia School District, so I could be home with my kids.

I got the job at River Ridge in 1998.

Q: What are your hobbies?

A: There is a lot of volunteerism. I’m co-state director for the Educational Theatre Association and part of the writing team for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

I also am on an arts advocacy task force, and I worked for 11 years with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to write the grade-level expectations and arts learning standards.

I’ve also taught theater arts at South Puget Sound Community College, The Evergreen State College and City University.

I’m an avid movie watcher. I once saw five movies in one day, in three theaters.

I’m in love with British comedy. I love historical nonfiction. One of my favorite books is “A Midwife’s Tale.”

I, of course, love to spend time with my grandson. … I really cherish time when I can get together with my own kids.

When the power went out for several days at my house, I had four children at my home so we ended up sitting by flashlight and reading out loud “Ender’s Game,” and I said, ‘This is a stolen moment from when they were little kids.’

Q: What makes River Ridge’s theater program unique?

A. This is a very student-centered program. We have a rule that ‘you watch it, you do it, you teach it’ because that’s how you pass it on.

...The kids learn so much emotionally and socially, while they’re also learning something very deeply. All of a sudden they learn so much by having to teach it to someone else.

I also have a very strong belief that students should be involved in all aspects of theater. I require all my techies to act, and all of my actors to tech.

The last thing is we have a huge amount of tradition. Every poster and program is up on the wall of every performance. Everyone gets a charm on opening night. We have an awards ceremony.

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?

A: I enjoy that every day is a new and wonderful surprise. It is the best. You come and the kid that you are absolutely sure is never going to get it, gets it.

… Every year I get to be a little piece of their lives, and every day is a surprise. I’m never, ever going to be bored.

Q: Tell us about the Golden Apple Award.

A: It is amazing. I feel very humbled and very honored, and I think it could go to at least half the staff in North Thurston Public Schools. They’re doing the same kinds of wonderful things we’re doing here.

I was nominated by a current student, Olivia Maassen. They emailed me and asked me to answer two of eight questions and give some references. One of the conditions was I had to agree to stay another year.

I almost didn’t turn all of that in because I thought, ‘There are so many wonderful people, and I’ll never be chosen.’

At the same time, I was trying to help my youngest son get a job. He was graduating from high school. He said he’d never get a job that he wanted, and I was like, ‘Your chances go up if you apply.’

When he found out about the Golden Apple, he said, ‘You know, Mom, your chances go up if you apply.’

(The process) was very self-reflective, and it was very nice to talk about the things we do at River Ridge.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 @Lisa_Pemberton

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