Eric Fessenden: A great guy all around
Mr. Fess on the job.
He kayak surfs. He’s climbed Mount Shasta and skied back down. He regularly rides a bike, goes on camping trips and dreams of someday living with his wife on a remote piece of land with a creek running through it. Makes perfect sense that Eric Fessenden, a nature-loving, outdoorsy kind of guy, has dedicated his life to teaching life science, earth sciences at Altimira Middle School.
Mr. Fess, as the kids call him, has been teaching in Sonoma since 1985, starting at El Verano Elementary and soon moving to Altimira, where he’s brought the connection between science and the real world alive for hundreds of his students. “It’s so neat to see the look of illumination on kids faces when they get something,” he said.
Middle-school students touch his soul because they are old enough to understand complex ideas and young enough to not be jaded. “They still want to please,” he said. “They are excited and want to do things.”
He points out that, in middle school, students are still learning things that are very useful. “The trig you learn in high school is maybe not so useful in your life over the long term,” he laughed. “I like teaching science because it makes so much sense.” While he now teaches only science, he also taught math for many years. And middle school math is math you use forever.
There are no rows of desks in Mr. Fess’s classroom. Students sit in teams around tables, and discussion is as important a part of his teaching style as lecturing. He’s always working at keeping the kids engaged and paying attention and, most important, enjoying what’s being taught. He aims for “good mind expansion,” and igniting the desire to know more.
Mr. Fess will always be known as the teacher who takes students on a week-long learning adventure at Mono Lake. Eight times since 1998 he’s led students and their parent chaperones on a camping and hiking trip that is the pinnacle of their middle school lives (And for some, quite possibly, for their whole lives.). Last year, the trip was snowed out and this year it’s not on the agenda, but for the students who’ve made the trip, it’s a lifetime memory.
On the Mono Lake trip, there are always numerous firsts involved for most students – first time camping, first time in the snow, first time to see a waterfall – and the focus is always on learning new things. The biology of the lake, the history of the Native Americans who lived there and the pioneers who passed through, the geography and geology of the Mono Lake area – it’s a rich educational experience that Mr. Fess hopes he’ll get to share again.
But even without the trip, Mr. Fess is very happy at Altimira. “My loyalty to the school comes from having been through so many big changes,” he said, recalling when sixth-grade first began there, and when Adele Harrison Middle School opened and the campus became less crowded. “I like the new principal and I like the block scheduling,” he said, and he thinks the school continually improves. “There’s been quite an evolution at this school.”
He said the hardest thing about teaching for him is trying to keep a reasonable balance between his classroom being fun and demanding. “Those two things are usually somewhat contradictory in a classroom setting,” he said. “One of the struggles I have with teaching is being nice and also having discipline and focus. It is my nature to be a nice guy.”
His students, it seems, do see him both ways. Eli Sanchez, one of Mr. Fess’ former students who is now at Sonoma Valley High School, remembers him as one of the very best teachers he’s ever had. “Mr. Fess is a great guy all around,” he said, and that very accurately sums up Eric Fessenden.