A thunderbolt moment. That one special class. A lifetime of lessons, passed down from mother to daughter. A self-described interest in “adolescent anthropology.” Of the hundreds of teachers working classrooms throughout the Wood River Valley, each has a unique reason for plying the trade. This year, readers of the Idaho Mountain Express honored six for their excellence. While each came to the profession for different reasons for taking the job—and each deploys a different style in the classroom, all have a couple of things in common. First and foremost, they go out of their way to build relationships with their students. And second? They love what they do.
Jesse Neet, a social studies and history teacher at Wood River High School, was voted the gold-medal winner. Other honorees include silver medalists Laura Barnhardt, a Hemingway STEAM School teacher; Brad Stansbury, a Hemingway STEAM School teacher; and Harry Weekes, Sage School head of school; as well as bronze medalists Susan Chizum, a Big Wood School teacher; and Kerstin Flavin, a Hemingway STEAM School teacher.
A few years ago, Jesse Neet noticed the juniors and seniors began running through the halls of Wood River High School, streaming into his fifth-period history elective, War in the Modern World. The mad dash from the lunch room to his door made Neet nervous—and confused. He told them they had time, and not to worry—he wasn’t going to give them a tardy over a minute or two. But that wasn’t it.
“Oh, we know that,” he remembers one student saying. “We just don’t want to miss anything. This is the best class we’ve ever taken.”
Now wrapping up his 12th year in Blaine County schools, Neet this year was voted the valley’s best teacher by Idaho Mountain Express readers. But that moment at the classroom? That was his “Mission Accomplished” moment, and all the recognition he needed—at least until his next student walked through the door.
Not bad for a 2.0 student who thought he’d be wrapping up a career in the majors by this point in his life.
“I was just a normal kid. A goof-off. Thought I was going to play Major League Baseball—that was my path. Young and dumb. I was all C’s, D’s, whatever it took to get through.”
Neet, now 38, tells his students that story. Many see a piece of themselves in it. The divorced parents. The father, in and out and quiet when he did come around—not the place to go for answers. The stepfather, friendly now, but not back then. And the mother, “a hero, a hard-working woman,” but too taken by responsibility to see all the small battles her son was made to fight.
“You’ve got to show them your vulnerabilities,” Neet said. “My story’s different, but they can see similarities. Not always feeling like I was believed in, or that my home was a safe place to be—I can get why kids don’t get their homework done, or why they come here tired. Explaining that story—letting them know I went through some [stuff] myself—it helps.”
So does having a teacher to lean on. For Neet, as a 17-year-old treading water in Cottage Grove, Ore., it was Mrs. Bridgens. In 11th-grade English, he wrote a poem—“it was terrible,” he remembers, something about baseball—but Mrs. Bridgens didn’t think so. She took it seriously—took him seriously. Made him feel smart. Neet still remembers that feeling; now, he brings it to class each day. At 17, Mrs. Bridgens made a C student decide he’d become a teacher himself, so that one day, he could make students feel the same way.
“Jesse has made such great connections with our students,” Wood River High School Principal John Pearce said. “He is so approachable and makes it a part of his daily mission to reach out to students who need that ‘something’ to keep them motivated.
“His life experiences make him the consummate teacher. He cares.”
These days, Neet doesn’t speak up much in faculty meetings. Put him at a dinner party, and he’ll drift to the corner. At home, he’s usually content to listen to his wife, Jennifer—herself a kindergarten teacher at Hailey Elementary—and their two children: Josie, who is 5, and Jackson, 2. He has the sort of quiet hobbies—reading history, listening to podcasts, putting on a backpack and heading to the mountains—that recharge for a self-described introvert before a week in a crowded classroom.
But put him in that room, and something clicks.
“This is my natural environment,” Neet said, sitting at his desk in the back hall of Wood River High School. “I’m at my best in here.”
In Room C-207, everything Neet hopes his students feel—safety, comfort, a sense of pride—he seems to draw from the place himself. He relaxes, and, eventually the kids do, too.
“When he talks to you, he’s not doing other things, or multitasking—he’s not trying to do anything but hear you,” said Heidi Husbands, chair of the department. “He pays attention. He spends a lot of time getting to know [his students], and its quality time. There’s a mutual understanding—he respects them, and they respect him.
“Ultimately, the reason he does this job is for the kids. There are times when a lot of us, we’re just done—it’s easy to check out. But Jesse never seems to be done with them. We could all use more people like that in our lives.”
“It takes a lot of time,” Neet said. “A lot of one-on-one conversations. Everyone’s unique—and I’m going to do all I can to learn about that uniqueness, to find out where your interests lie, what your passions are.
“If I don’t get to know them as people, it’s like talking to a telemarketer. This subject—history—we’re talking about people all the time. We’re telling stories. I’m sharing mine, and they’re sharing theirs.”
Neet tries to avoid “delivering” lessons from the front of his classroom. Lectures? Old-fashioned. Textbooks, too. He keeps a stack in the middle of the room for reference, but that’s about it. Neet doesn’t assign homework, or punish late assignments. He pulls clips from YouTube, plays clips from podcasts—a repertoire that’s constantly evolving to meet kids on familiar, ever-modern terms.
“We’re a 20th-century structure trying to work in a 21st-century world,” he said. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with the speed of change, especially in the general education system. We’re a dinosaur. We’re doing dinosaur stuff. I still have sometimes students sitting, and sometimes, I’m just delivering. That’s the factory model. How do you work within the system, and manage to get away from that? Little things build up over time, and build resentment. I’m trying to tear down that resentment, and build excitement.
“This is their classroom—it’s not mine. I’m a facilitator. I simply ask, ‘Where do we want this ship to go?’”
That means pushing beyond the bounds of what’s typically taught in U.S. history classes, too. Neet isn’t an academic, and he isn’t a purist in his approach to history. For a man dedicated to studying the past, he teaches it with an eye to the future. He’s had one student pursue the subject after college—and he’s proud of that, sure—but he also has a wall of thank-you notes pinned up in his classroom, from students who remembered, down the road, what Mr. Neet taught them. Those he treats like gold.
History, it turns out, can sound a lot like a life-skills class.
“We’re not just studying dead old dudes on dollar bills,” he said. “We’re studying human beings. They lived like you. Had problems like you, whether it was 300 years ago, 30 years ago, or three years ago. History is alive. It’s still acting out. We’re paying attention to small ripples, because we’re making ripples, too.”
Someday, today’s student will be asked to make decisions—by their family, their community, their government—that might turn those ripples into waves. Neet wants his kids to know that whatever they face, it’s never the first time. These challenges have happened before. Will happen again. And the answers are out there, if you’re willing to open up and look.
“I’m doing my dream job,” he said. “This is what I want to do. I truly enjoy every day in here. My students, they make me better—a better parent, a better citizen, a better man. Maybe I got lucky, or maybe I’m just blessed.
“I may not be the best teacher in the world, but dammit, I love what I do.”