Featured Teachers: Lee BilderbackJanuary 16, 2020
By LEANN BURKE
FERDINAND — If you ask someone about Ferdinand Elementary teacher Lee Bilderback, one of two things will come up: his passion for his profession or his sense of humor.
Sometimes, both come up.
Bilderback, 55, has been teaching in the Southeast Dubois County School Corporation for 16 years. He’s become known as the history buff — he’s published two books on Dubois County history — and as someone who is a source for positive energy when the pressures students and educators face gets intense.
“He’s always willing to help out with things,” Cedar Crest Principal Mark Jahn said. “And his sense of humor added to the flavor of his teaching.”
Jahn and Bilderback worked together for 13 years at Cedar Crest before Bilderback moved to Ferdinand Elementary at the start of this school year.
Bilderback says he’s known as “the nerdy teacher,” probably because he likes to share all kinds of facts with his students — especially during history lessons — and occasionally weaves German words into his lessons, which the kids love. He doesn’t mind the moniker, though.
“I’m not the cool teacher, I’m the nerdy teacher,” he freely admits with a smile. “And that’s fine. As long as they’re learning, that’s fine.”
Bilderback traces his passion for learning and education to his uncle, Dubois County native and Lincoln Scholar William Bartelt. As a child, Bilderback often accompanied his uncle on research trips around the state, helping the University of Southern Indiana professor dig up tidbits on Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures and events.
At the same time, Bilderback saw how respected his uncle was. All of Bilderback’s siblings and friends looked up to the man just as much as Bilderback did. Bartelt became a role model for Bilderback, leading him to pursue a degree in history and elementary education from the University of Southern Indiana after graduating from Southridge High School.
Although he graduated college with a teaching degree, it took nine years for Bilderback to get a job in a classroom. During his post-college job search, he was offered a job working guest relations at a Dubois County company. He’d worked guest relations at Holiday World in the summers and enjoyed it, so when the opportunity to do it full time at another company came up, he figured he’d at least interview. Ultimately, he got the job. Looking back, he said, he’s grateful for the time he spent in guest relations, but recalls all the while desiring to teach.
After almost a decade, he took a year off, pursued a master’s degree in elementary education from USI and extended his teaching license to include younger grades. After completing his student teaching at Holland Elementary — his hometown — he landed a classroom of his own at Pine Ridge Elementary. That was 16 years ago, and he’s taught in Southeast Dubois ever since.
Bilderback has seen a lot of change during his career, including the opening of Cedar Crest Intermediate. He was one of the inaugural teachers at that school and spent most of his career teaching history and English to the sixth-graders.
Now that he’s in the “fourth quarter of his career,” as he calls it, he decided it was time for a change and took a job teaching fourth grade at Ferdinand Elementary. Although it’s been a change, the adjustment hasn’t been as challenging as Bilderback expected. It turns out that fourth- and sixth-graders aren’t all that different.
“Sure fourth-graders like animal stories and sixth like sci-fi and fantasy, but they’re still watching the same TV shows and playing the same video games,” Bilderback said.
Bilderback also attributes the ease of his transition to his colleagues at Ferdinand Elementary and even though it’s his first year at the school, he has already found a place among the faculty as an upbeat guy.
“He brings a lot of positive energy and humor to each day, which I value greatly,” said Kerri Winkler, the other fourth grade teacher at Ferdinand Elementary.
The two work closely together on lesson plans and even split the subject matter, with Winkler teaching all the science lessons and Bilderback handling social studies.
Parental support has also made the transition easy, Bilderback said. At Southeast Dubois, education is seen as a community effort, and everyone works together to make sure the students are receiving a quality education, he said, and that’s big.
“Every one of my students had at least one parent for open house and at least one parent for parent-teacher conferences,” Bilderback said. “That’s the norm here. But when I talk to my friends who teach in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, they’re lucky to have 50%.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been transitioning back to teaching math. After more than a decade focused only on the humanities, Bilderback said there’s been a bit of a learning curve when it comes to math because the way it’s taught now is so different from the way it was taught when he was starting out.
“I can easily empathize with parents who say, ‘I don’t get this,’” he said. “I’m re-learning it, too.”
Still, Legos and dry-erase marker boards are great tools for math lessons, just as they always have been, and Bilderback uses them a lot.
Printed books are also just as important to Bilderback’s teaching as they always have been, despite the rise in technology that he’s seen through his career. In fact, when you enter his classroom, the first thing you pass is a wall of shelves filled with books. Bilderback calls it his library, and it’s right next to the reading lounge — a comfy couch and floor space where the class gathers when he reads to them.
Although he loves history, Bilderback said reading is his favorite to teach.
“The texts kids are reading now, I feel, are so much more engaging than when I grew up,” he said.
This year, his students have read “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen and the classic “Old Yeller,” among others. The students really got into “Old Yeller,” Bilderback said, and several checked out their copies from the library so they could read along with him. At the end of the book when the dog dies, several students were so invested in the story that they cried.
“I love seeing the students connect with a text,” Bilderback said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Although Bilderback still uses old school tools like paperback books and dry-erase boards in his teaching, he also embraces the advancements in technology. Every day, he puts a motivational message on the ViewSonic touch screen board he uses to teach in place of the traditional blackboard, and he incorporates videos and educational apps into his lessons, too.
Although teaching with technology has its challenges, Bilderback believes that overall, it’s a positive that helps keep students engaged with their learning. Take a recent history lesson about the woolly mammoth for example. During the lesson, Bilderback pulled up an animation of the extinct creature on the ViewSonic, and the students got to watch the animal as if it were still alive. The video led to a flurry of conversation and questions about the creature that Bilderback doubts would have happened if the only illustration available was a static image in a book.
Conversation inspired by students’ curiosity is one of the best things about teaching, Bilderback said, second perhaps only to seeing a student’s face light up when they finally understand a concept they’ve been struggling with.
“That’s my No. 1 favorite thing about teaching,” Bilderback said.
He also loves to see his students grow up to be successful adults, no matter what that looks like for them, and he encourages them to follow their passions, whether that’s becoming a doctor, a farmer or a mechanic. Once, he recalls, he had his students go around the room and tell him what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of them said doctor, singer or NFL player. Then, one boy said, “Mr. B, I just want to be a farmer.”
“I said, ‘That’s great. I love to go to Chick-fil-A. My chicken comes from a farmer. I love to have mashed potatoes. My potatoes come from a farmer,” Bilderback said.
For him, the main thing is teaching his students that they can be anything they want as long as they strive to do their best at it and they do it with integrity. That’s what teaching is all about.
This story is part of Featured Teachers, a monthly series that highlights educators in our community. To suggest an educator to be featured, email Education Reporter Leann Burke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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