El Verano School teacher Dave Nuebacher with students, standing on the pollinator maze they created to help students learn about the lives of pollinators.
Students love Mr. Neubacher
Dave Neubacher loves his students and his students love him. He’s heading into his 37th year teaching at El Verano Elementary School, and keeps a worn-out photo album with every class photo in his desk. His students love looking at it knowing they, too, are becoming part of Mr. Neubacher history. He’s been teaching so long, the last few years he’s had kids in his class whose parents were once his students.
Mr. Neubacher reigns in Room 46, with its doorway view of Sonoma Mountain and the student playground. This fifth-grade classroom, where he’s taught the past 15 years, is chock-a-block with memorabilia, the walls a virtual scrapbook of student posters and assorted awards. Prized among them are the four Jiminy Cricket Environmental Challenge trophies, a national competition that he and his students won in 1996, 1997, 2003, and 2005, earning each class a complimentary trip to Disneyland. “Most of the kids have never been there and it makes them feel good inside,” he says with deep affection.
Last year, they won Disney’s statewide competition, earning $1,000. Mr. Neubacher let the students decide how to spend it – they had a pizza party, adopted a polar bear, paid to have 25 trees planted and bought butterfly larvae that they raised and released in the school garden.
He is an avid proponent of project-based learning, where students learn reading and math skills while working as a team to reach a goal.
Every year, he takes his class to the Point Reyes Clem Miller Environmental Education Center. Besides what they learn at the site, the students have to devise a budget for the trip, plan all the meals and make a grocery list for what they will need. How many eggs? How much milk? How much will each student have to pay? It’s math made real.
Next they have to write a report on the experience, enhancing their writing skills. “It builds kids’ independence, teaches them how to take care of themselves, to get along and understand each other better in a group-living environment. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity,” Mr. Neubacher said.
Eight years ago, the class environmental project was to build wood duck boxes and place them all around the Valley. The boxes have to be cleaned and monitored every year, and records are kept on how many boxes were used, how many ducklings hatched, and so on. This summer, 28 of the 31 original students showed up to check the boxes. “It’s amazing how they’ve kept it going,” he said. Clearly he’s instilled the meaning of teamwork and responsibility.
The Mr. Neubacher event that still gets talked about the most is when his students won the President’s Environmental Youth Award for their project on why wolves should not be killed. A message was sent to his classroom to “Call Jenny,” so at recess he went and dialed the long distance number.
Jenny turned out to be a Secret Service agent, asking him to please hold, President Clinton wanted to talk to him. He was on hold a few minutes when President Clinton came on, informed him his class had won and congratulated him. Then the bell rang, recess was over, and Mr. Neubacher, somewhat stunned, said, “Thank you. I have to get back to the classroom now,” and hung up on the President of the United States. His students were waiting.
He took eight students to Washington, D.C., to receive the award. They were there three days and got to tour the White House. “It was a wonderful trip,” he said, his pride still evident.
All three of Mr. Neubacher’s now-adult daughters attended El Verano, and the youngest one was in his class. “I thought it would be awkward but the kids were oblivious. It worked out fine and it was such an amazing experience for me.”
Almost every evening he gets a phone call from former students, sometimes just to check in, and other times from kids now in high school looking for help with homework. There have been times when he hears from as many as 10 students a night. He has been invited to many of their weddings and countless quinceaneras. Every single year he attends the Altimira Middle School and Sonoma Valley High School graduations, watching his former students as they continue on their way.
“I really like trying to bring out the best in kids. Help them to show off their unique talents,” he said. “I love teaching still to this day. I love coming to work every morning and being with the kids.”
Mr. Neubacher is 60 now, so who knows how many more classes he’s yet to have. “When I go, I’ll go quietly,” he said.