HARWICH – While his students were enjoying their summer beach days, Monomoy Regional High School History teacher Richard Houston added another piece of historical hardware to his classroom—a shining silver plate he received in July when he was given the 2019 Teacher of the Year Award by the American Battlefield Trust.
Houston, nominated by fellow educator Kevin Bates, learned he was a finalist for the award in the days before the organization's National Teacher Institute event held on July 13 in North Carolina. Houston said he knew he'd won when the announcer began reading excerpts from Bates's nomination letter.
“A couple of sentences in it was pretty clear who it was,” said Houston. “That kind of took away the surprise.”
While there might not have been a surprise element involved in winning, Houston isn't taking the award lightly, continuing to emphasize that the main reason he's dedicated to his craft is so he can continue to uphold a passion for protecting democracy and freedom.
“That's what it's all about,” he said. “For the overwhelming majority of kids, the last time they have any kind of systematic study of history and government and economics is their junior year in high school, unless they choose to further their education.”
Houston said that most colleges no longer have a requirement that students take government or history courses, so most students opt out, something he'd like to see change. In the meantime, as he enters his 42nd year of teaching, he aims to ensure that his students have the knowledge they need to become informed citizens, frequently relying on contemporary means to do so.
Fans of Houston know well that he makes daily posts to his Twitter account. During the school year he offers homework reminders, hints about what's on an upcoming test, and notifications on important events. When school is out for the summer, Houston keeps up his social media presence via his hashtag #HistoryNeverTakesSummerVacation.
“Whether it's posting things from my history travels, conferences, or important news articles, it's just my way of trying to make sure kids are paying attention during the off season,” Houston said. “You've got to meet kids where they are and use tools to help them engage. [Twitter is] my way of keeping them engaged.”
In an era of school curriculum aimed at “teaching to a test” Houston's history lessons aren't subject to the scrutiny of standardized state testing, something he said has its pluses and minuses.
“There is no history MCAS,” he said. “The pluses are that it allows you to put your teaching energies into things beyond the set curriculum. The downside is that I think all over the state and all over the country history and civics education, until recently, have been eviscerated because it's not one of the tested subjects.”
Recently, Massachusetts passed a state law requiring eighth grade civics, which Houston said is fantastic, but cautions that it's only a start.
“That's for eighth graders. That's a building block as to what you're going to do when you're 17 or 18 and a junior or a senior, and more importantly when you turn 18 and become a voter,” he said. “Having the knowledge base is essential. Having the skills – political skills, writing skills, communication skills – are all part of the package. There's a lot of leeway within that as to how you go about hooking them, pulling them in, and engaging them in a way that continues when they leave the building.”
It is Houston's hope that his students leave high school with at minimum an appreciation for the importance of democracy and freedom, which motivates them to be cognizant of local, state, and national political issues, ideally voting on them with awareness and understanding.
Though Houston can't pinpoint exactly what it was that inspired him to become a history teacher, he often busts out an old photo of himself at five or six years old reenacting Pickett's Charge, the famous Gettysburg Civil War battle, with his blue and gray toy soldiers on his living room floor.
“When kids see that picture they kind of get my mania,” he joked. “If there was a specific event, I would say it was when my crazy parents loaded their seven kids into a station wagon and a trailer in the summer of 1969 and traveled 10,000 miles all the way across the country and back, stopping at National Parks, historic sites, two presidential museums. In fact, we watched the landing on the moon from my great uncle's home in San Diego, my great uncle who was at Pear Harbor. That kind of stuff is what gives me joy.”
Houston said one of the benefits of attending the awards ceremony for the American Battlefield Trust was meeting teachers from across the country also dedicated to upholding the importance of history and civics classes.
“I would highly encourage any teacher, no matter what their field is, to engage with other teachers in their field on a national basis because it's enlightening, builds solidarity, and for me, anyway, it boosts my morale when I'm intermingling with other like-minded colleagues who are out there fighting the battles,” he said. “In accepting an award like this, any teacher is going to be humbled, because... there are dozens and dozens locally, and thousands and thousands nationally who equally deserve recognition like this, and there's not enough recognition to go around for all the good and hard work that's being done. I think it's hard for people outside the building to have an understanding for what the challenges are. When someone makes a point of engaging in their work to make sure people do get a picture of all the good stuff going on, it's highly appreciated.”