Yelm teacher lauded for helping community grow

Community Service Teacher of the Year enjoys motivating his students

lpemberton@theolympian.comSeptember 30, 2013 

From left, Yelm High School teacher Matthew Mounts works during a lunch hour this month with students Sheridan Lantz, Erin Smith and Robert Haney weighing vegetables grown in the school’s garden for delivery to a food bank. Mounts was named Community Service Teacher of the Year by the Washington Association for Career and Technical Education.

STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Matthew Mounts’ boss describes him as high-energy and extremely kid-orientated.

“He’s a real renaissance type of teacher,” said Brian Wharton, principal at Yelm High School. “One moment he’s in the woods with the kids working on sustainable habitat and the next he’s working in a science lab. He’s confident and comfortable moving in and out of classroom environments.”

Mounts, in his 14th year of teaching — all at Yelm High — recently was named Community Service Teacher of the Year by the Washington Association for Career and Technical Education.

The Olympian caught up with Mounts, 36, who lives in the Yelm area, and talked about the award, his life and his teaching career. The following are excerpts from the conversation:

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: I graduated from Tumwater High School in 1995. I went to Centralia College and transferred to Washington State University and graduated in 2000. My degree is in agriculture and natural resources with a teaching endorsement.

Q: How did you get into teaching agriculture?

A: I’ve always had a passion for agriculture and working outdoors and in the natural resources field. And I’ve always been a people person. When I started connecting the lines in all of those things, I felt teaching was a good avenue.

Q: For people who aren’t familiar with the National FFA Organization — which used to be called Future Farmers of America — how would you describe it?

A: Nowadays, really, it’s more of a youth leadership organization that just uses agriculture as its avenue. Most of our kids are in it for the leadership opportunities it provides for them.

Q: Were you in FFA in high school?

A: I was not — they didn’t offer that program. But it was something I would have totally been into.

Q: Tell us about your family.

A: My wife’s name is Andi. We have two children. Our son, Brody, is 5, and our daughter, Bailey, is 3.

Q: What are your hobbies?

A: I would say there are three things I do: I have about 40 head of cattle at home, and if I’m not doing something for them, I’m either hunting or fishing, and on Sundays I can’t miss the Seahawks.

Q: What classes do you teach?

A: I teach aqua science, which is biology with an aquatic twist. I also teach sustainable habitats, which used to be forestry and wildlife; small engines; and green technology.

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?

A: Just working with the kids. They’re at such an impressionable age, and they have a desire to achieve. They want to do well, and it’s amazing the level they can reach or achieve when you motivate them to do their best. It’s a challenge and fun at the same time.

Q: What kind of student were you in school?

A: I would say when I was in school I was definitely the student who needed hands-on activities. My mouth probably got me in trouble a time or two because I could never shut up. I was the type of student who learned by doing. (Chuckles.)

Q: The award you received is about community service. What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?

A: Some of the things I’ve been most proud of have been a team effort between me and Dusti Nash, another FFA adviser here.

We had a safe driving campaign that was recognized by State Farm. … The thing that we were really proud of with that is, we motivated the students, and the students took off and made it their own and pushed us. We worked really hard on it, but it was totally student-driven.

Around Easter, we put on a 5K run called “Hop for Hunger” to get food for the food bank.

We also started a community garden at the school. It has 12 raised beds, and our ultimate goal is to provide more fresh produce to the food banks we have in Yelm.

So far this year, we’re close to 1,000 pounds produced out of it.

With that project, we started a campaign called Plant an Extra Row. We gave seeds to community members and encouraged them to grow them and donate it back. We’re almost at 1,000 pounds from the community. We’re almost at one ton for the year.

Q: Tell us about the award.

A: The goal of it was to recognize an outstanding teacher of the state who puts a lot of effort into the community. It was a plaque, and it was awarded at the state conference in Yakima in August.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned you won?

A: I was pretty excited. … It’s too bad I can’t cut that plaque up into a thousand tiny pieces and hand them to all of the students and community members who helped in those service projects.

Q: If you hadn’t gone into teaching, where do you think you would have landed?

A: There are so many things I would love to do. I could honestly see myself running a large-scale cattle operation. What’s funny, too, I could see myself doing so many things. I could see myself working in the fish and wildlife field in a heartbeat.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: This has been such a great community to work in, and I’ve had some very, very supportive administrators during my career that allow us to do so many activities in and outside the community. Without that support, these kids wouldn’t have the opportunities to build that success for when they’re older.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 lpemberton@theolympian.com

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