LHS social studies chairman: No day is typical in his class

Lawrence High School social studies teacher Mike Ortmann leads class Thursday at LHS. Ortmann won a Wolfe Teaching Excellence Award from Kansas University.

Teaching can be demanding. But the big payoff comes when you finally get through to the student, says Mike Ortmann.

“It’s really rewarding, especially when you see that light click in a young person’s eyes,” the Lawrence High School history teacher said last week. “It’s really fun.”

Helping students see the intellectual light has led Ortmann to another other reward – he soon will receive a Kansas University Wolfe Teaching Excellence Award.

During KU’s graduation weekend May 19-20, Ortmann will receive a $3,000 cash award, and LHS will receive a $1,000 award in his name. Teachers are nominated by KU seniors and go through a tiered selection process.

Steve Nilhas, LHS principal, said one of Ortmann’s talents is his engaging, entertaining manner.

“He knows his content very, very well,” Nilhas said. “He really understands the need for students to be involved in their learning. So it’s not unusual for students to give little skits or dramatic interpretations or reports. His classes are very active. Students don’t just sit there and take notes all hour long.”

Ortmann, who grew up in Augusta, graduated from Kansas State University in 1977. He has a master’s degree from Wichita State University and taught in Newton and Derby before coming to LHS 13 years ago.

Now chairman of the LHS social studies department, he teaches classes in U.S., world and European history and East Asian studies.

“History is my thing,” Ortmann said. “I’m lucky enough to have a varied day and a lot of types of history.”

He says there is no such thing as a typical day in his class. He mixes up his lesson plans with exercises to develop students’ writing, oral discussion and presentation skills.

“I’m a real believer in challenging them to think and really delve into the subject,” he said. “I want them to be prepared to use their minds and be critical thinkers. : Young people are underestimated in that they are such a phenomenal resource for this country.”

He said if more people would talk to teens, they would discover they have a lot of in-depth knowledge and they care about the outside world.

“I’m a real believer in challenging them, but (also) trying to creatively meet their different, varied learning styles and, at the same time, providing them a structured and a knowledgeable environment where they can grow into young scholars,” he said.

He likened teaching to being a guide.

“They do best in a structured environment where they feel safe to explore their own ideas but be able to delve into the subject matter,” he said.

Learning about the past gives students a strong knowledge of what was done right and what didn’t work so well, he said, “and to have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done in the future.”