Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
Bret Dockter’s year as the 2022 North Dakota Teacher of the Year (TOY) has been, in his own words, amazing and humbling.
“In our first meeting of the 56 teachers (from all 50 states and 4 U.S. territories), I realized how special this moment was for me,” said Dockter. “It made me appreciate the award even more.”
Dockter is a sixth-grade teacher who teaches science, social studies, and math at B.M. Hanson Elementary in Harvey. He also serves as head coach for the Harvey-Wells County football team. This is his 26th year coaching and 24th year teaching in Harvey.
During that first meeting the teachers were asked to begin developing their platform for the year. Dockter wanted to promote teacher retention and recruitment and his ‘Why I’m Staying in Education’ platform was born. His platform got a boost when he was informed he was the first recipient of a $15,000 federal grant, which will be awarded to future North Dakota TOYs, as long as funding is available.
“I didn’t want to waste the grant, so I took my platform on the road,” explained Dockter. “I spoke to teachers at schools and in-services, to students at high school career fairs and colleges – trying to motivate and inspire others. I think it helps that I am in the classroom, and I get it. It's not always rainbows and unicorns. But there are more great times and that is why we all got in it. Sometimes we need to look at those ‘why’ – why we got in it in the first place.
“I got into it to make a difference for kids, because someone did that for me when I was younger. I am so grateful that someone gave me an opportunity to sit on the bench with them and coach as a 6th grader. I never forgot that. I want to instill a passion and give kids the opportunity to say, ‘I can do this’ and ‘Mr. Dockter inspired me.’ That is my why.
“While developing my platform, I wanted to know what others’ why was, so I went around and asked other teachers and ended up making a video. Tom Gerhardt, from North Dakota United, has also helped me capture other teachers’ whys in a podcast that will be released soon. Hopefully teachers will listen and get the boost they need.”
Dockter was able to share that video in a “Finding Your Why” class developed by a colleague, and also used some of his grant money to purchase books for the class.
“My message to teachers is to think about what got you into the teaching profession in the first place,” said Dockter. “One of the things I talk about is, I know I’m never going to be rich. My brother makes a lot more money than I do, but my job is much more rewarding and I get more out of it, and he would probably agree. There is no job I know of that is perfect every day. The thing I like – it is changing, you have to adapt to it, and you are never going to get bored. Rediscover your why to keep the fire and energy going.”
The National TOY Program was developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and they support educators across the country with a yearlong, one-of-a-kind professional learning and development experience. CCSSO provided virtual and in-person opportunities for the 56 teachers to connect, and the first in-person meeting was in Washington, DC.
“That trip to Washington, D.C. was something I will never forget,” said Dockter. “Meeting everyone face to face and really getting to know them one on one, you learn we all have the same objectives and goals, and there was opportunity to offer words of encouragement or advice. We also got to meet our delegation and the President and First Lady.”
He also traveled to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and said that was a special bonding time with the other 55 TOYs, besides being able to sit in rockets and do some zero-gravity experience. Dockter also met more remarkable people there, including astronauts and authors.
“I remember saying, ‘I wish I could bottle this and take it back,’” he said. “I’ve tried to share their stories, but it is more authentic when it comes from the person, so I have had some call in to share with our teachers and also the football team. Their stories are so incredible.
“That was probably the most rewarding part of this past year, besides getting to do so many things I’ve never done before, it was all the great people I have met and been able to associate with. For instance, when my wife and I were having dinner in Washington, D.C., we struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to us, who was from Boston. I went to pay the bill and found he already had. He told us ‘Everything I have I owe to a teacher, and I just wanted to pay it forward.’”
The Community Project
“The Community Project started by accident. Fifteen years ago, I was teaching 4th grade and we were studying millions. Some of the kids were saying how a million isn’t that much anymore, so I decided we should collect a million of something and we started collecting pop tops. They came from across the country, even Canada, and we ended up with 970,000. Then we had to decide what to do with all these pop tops and found the Ronald McDonald House in Bismarck uses them. We loaded them up and took them to Bismarck. They gave the kids a tour and you could see the pride on their faces, ‘We did something good for someone else.’
“When I got home, I decided we needed to do something like this every year and the next year we had a student that went to the Shriners hospital, so we raised money for them and even had Shriners from Minneapolis come to the school to talk to the students. The next year was the Souris River Flood, and a science teacher friend lost all of his science equipment, so we raised money to help him.
“At the end of that third year, the students wanted to hold a celebration to thank everyone for helping. They had an idea to hold a concert like American Idol. I really wasn’t sure, but we got 10 kids to sign up and it turned out to be a huge thing. It’s now called B.M. Hanson Idol and this will be our 11th year. The high school comes over and more and more people from the community come every year. We are probably at about 1,000 people in our little school gym now.
“The next year, kids asked, ‘Why are we helping outside our community when there is so much we can do in our own community?’ So now the kids pick their projects, plan events throughout the year, and it just keeps growing. Last year they helped build a playground, the year before it was a bridge, this year we are cleaning up a beach. The kids have a pulse on what is going on in our community and the community has really jumped on board providing funding and other donations. Our class slogan is ‘What is Your Legacy?’ The kids think about what they want their class to be remembered for and that is how they make a lot of their decisions. I really don’t do much, they take over.
“The best part of this is having my kids interact in the community. They will speak at meetings and a couple weeks ago they did a presentation for a grocery store to see if they would sponsor our float and Christmas party. The kids don’t realize while they are doing this that they are learning a ton of things. Before Christmas break, we hosted a dodge ball tournament for the whole school, and we had committees doing things like deciding prices and researching crafts they could have available for younger students. When kids are empowered and they are learning, they will give you way more than if you are sitting there telling them what do. That is the fun part of teaching for me, finding ways to teach without them knowing they are learning. “
Dockter really appreciates his experiences as TOY. When he was first nominated, he just followed through with the steps not really thinking about what could happen.
“I didn’t realize how much it would change me,” he said. “For one thing, I now really enjoy speaking.”
As Dockter travels and speaks his message of why he is staying in education, teachers and future teachers across North Dakota are benefiting from his experience.
You can find out more about Bret and his class on his Facebook page.