It's hard to say who enjoys Steve Martin's classes more — the students or their teacher.
SpongeBob SquarePants, a popular children's character, is everywhere in Martin's classroom at Falcon Bluffs Middle School, setting the tone for a fun learning environment where Martin and his students enjoy a healthy back and forth that's usually the mark of longtime friends.
"It's fun," said Justin Shapiro, an eighth-grader in Martin's seventh- and eighth-grade orchestra class. "He's different (than other teachers). He actually makes it fun."
Justin, 13, a boy of few words, said simply that Martin makes class "better."
Martin is one of three teachers to earn the 2008 Jefferson Foundation's My Teacher, My Hero award. This is the sixth year the foundation has given the awards, for which South Jeffco teachers are nominated by their principals for going above and beyond expectations. The teachers will receive their awards during a ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 13 at Southwest Plaza Mall.
The other winners are Sally Santangelo, a fourth-grade teacher at Morrison's Kendallvue Elementary, and Greg Manier, a Conifer High School science teacher.
Martin has been teaching at Falcon Bluffs for six of his 23 years in education. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1986 and earned a master's degree in conducting from Southern Oregon University in 2007. He was Deer Creek Middle School's Teacher of the Year in the 1999-2000 school year. His groups have been selected to perform at the Colorado Music Educators Association annual conference seven times, including three groups from Falcon Bluffs.
Martin oversees the band and orchestra programs at Falcon Bluffs, including two orchestras, two bands, two jazz bands and a percussion ensemble. More than 150 students participate in the various groups.
He has taught fourth-graders through seniors, but prefers middle-school students.
"Some people couldn't do it," Martin says. "Middle school is tough. But I feel like I understand where the kids are coming from."
Teaching middle-school students is tricky, Martin said, because they can go from reasonable to volatile in a matter of seconds, and teachers can't let it get to them. "Nothing should surprise you," Martin said.
"I do get frustrated and do get after them from time to time," Martin said. But he doesn't want to control every aspect of their educational lives, because students of that age have little control in their lives, he said. Most students respond when given responsibility, Martin said.
Maddie Deutsch, another eighth-grader in Martin's orchestra class, said she's had Martin as a music teacher since sixth grade.
"I have not laughed in more classes in my life," Maddie said. She said Martin gives students room to be themselves but has high expectations and helps them learn.
Falcon Bluffs principal Wendy Rubin isn't surprised Martin won the award.
"I'm just absolutely thrilled," Rubin said. "Steve is a phenomenal teacher. He puts his heart and soul into his work with kids, and he is absolutely tireless."
Rubin said Martin devotes a lot of personal time in his "commitment to kids and his commitment to music."
She said Martin's success partly comes from the way he involves parents.
"He plans parent-only outings," Rubin said. "It's a way for parents to get involved, and to get connected. He really is focused on the total picture (of) the school as the heart of the community, and particularly his programs as the heart of a specialized community."
Martin said a key to success in education is getting parents involved, and the parent-only field trips are part of the process.
"I want them to get to know me a bit," Martin said. "I want to involve parents as much as I can. Kids need more than one person to work on them."
Martin has two daughters who are students — one is a junior at Chatfield High School, and the other will soon graduate from CU-Boulder.
The more teachers and parents interact, the better the results, Martin said.
Besides his credentials, Rubin said, Martin is a great — and hilarious — person.
"He's a riot," Rubin said. "He's one of the funniest people you'll ever meet."
Martin said he couldn't be an effective teacher without his wife, Roxanne, and the other teachers in the building, who he said are equally deserving of recognition.
"I have some challenging kids, but they're here by choice," Martin said, referring to the fact that his classes are electives.
Martin said he was not aware of the My Teacher, My Hero award before last year, but he's happy to get it this year.
"This is really exciting," Martin said.
"Receiving the My Teacher, My Hero award is quite an honor," Martin said in an e-mail. "There are a lot of excellent teachers dedicated to the education and success of young people in Jefferson County and at Falcon Bluffs Middle School. I am flattered and humbled that my hard work is being recognized in this way."
Fourth-grade teacher at Kendallvue Elementary, Morrison
• Attended Colorado State University and the University of Colorado, graduating with degree in elementary education.
• Left teaching for a position as appearance counselor for United Airlines. After several years, she realized she missed classroom as she volunteered at her children's schools. She became re-certified and became a fourth-grade teacher.
• Sixteen years later, Santangelo is a teacher at Kendallvue Elementary and loves her job, and tries to find the best ways to craft lessons and meet state standards. She has earned a master's degree in reading and literacy since returning to education.
• She mentors new teachers at her school, served on leadership committees and tutors struggling students after school.
• "I am a very dedicated teacher, who strives not only to raise the proficiency level of my students, but convince them that they love doing it," Santangelo said. "Making it fun is important to me. I hold myself to a very high standard and take the time to evaluate and re-evaluate the effectiveness of my lessons. Throughout my life, and especially in my teaching career, I have tried to model that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well."
— Jefferson Foundation
Conifer High School science teacher
• Has been teaching at Conifer High School for nine of his 11 years as a teacher. He teaches biology, advanced placement biology and ecology.
• Chair of the science department and varsity line coach for the football team, and the faculty sponsor of the World Issues Club.
• This year was the eighth year he's taken Jeffco students to Alaska in his role as owner/lead guide of the Mountain Institute of Science and Leadership, where students learn about marine biology, large mammal ecology and leadership.
• Has a 2-year-old son, Anderson, with his wife, Sarah. Enjoys spending time with them outdoors when he's not working.
— Jefferson Foundation