You’d never suspect that Lori Danz, Wisconsin’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, hated school as a youngster.
Danz, 57, a biology teacher and school-forest coordinator at Superior High School, doesn’t blame her teachers for that childhood loathing. She was a good student who performed well from kindergarten through college.
Her dislike for school was fairly simple: Classwork suffered in comparison to lessons her father taught her in the forests around her childhood homes, first in Butternut and then Superior. To this day, Danz blesses God for Wally Wasko, 85, her father. He shared his love and knowledge of nature whenever taking her hunting, fishing and exploring during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Wasko’s insights into the Northwoods’ fish, trees, plants, insects, deer, ruffed grouse and other critters made any classroom drudgery by comparison. Then again, those contrasts between indoor and outdoor education helped make Danz an excellent educator the past 32 years.
The proof came Aug. 22 when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction chose Danz to represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year program in 2023. That honor came after Danz was one of five state educators named in May as a Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.
The DPI’s press release said Danz’s positive attitude about education motivates everyone around her, and inspires “a love of learning by her students.” The Superior community credited her for making the improvements that help students and teachers enjoy outdoor education in the district’s 700-acre school forest. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Danz set up a camera system so classrooms throughout the district could monitor the forest. She also used recordings from those cameras to create video lessons.
Danz earned her teacher credentials at UW-Superior in 1989 and moved to Neenah to teach seventh-grade science. She taught in Neenah seven years until moving back to Superior, where she’s taught ever since.
Although Danz respects the formal training she received in college, she largely credits her father’s lifelong influence for her success as an educator. “This recognition as Teacher of the Year is one of the greatest tributes I can offer him,” Danz said. “He worked at the papermill when I was young. I was the youngest of three kids, and the last to go to school, so he often took me partridge hunting when his shift ended.
“Everyone can look back and identify their favorite teacher,” she continued. “In my case, it was my father. School was never as much fun as hunting and being outdoors with him. He was my pre-kindergarten teacher; the teacher who taught me how to teach.”
She also admires that her dad had the courage to move his family to Superior when he was 36 to attend college and earn a biology degree. Although his chief interest was fisheries, he eventually carved out a career as a landfill expert at the Department of Natural Resources.
Danz said her father always included her in hunting trips and getaways to the family’s shack in Ashland County. “I learned that hunting isn’t about the kill, and I like explaining that to nonhunters,” she said. “Those hunting trips taught me about traditions, camaraderie and scientific management. It’s all about relationships between land and people; and hunters, their friends and their families. It’s about shared time in the woods with endless questions and answers, and the deep trust of being in the woods together.”
Danz thinks those endless hours afield generated insights and enthusiasm that inspired her career. “When I look back on my time as a student and teacher, and my personal life and career, I feel really lucky,” she said. “All that magic and excitement; it all goes together. You see the predictability of nature’s cycles, the season’s changes, and life and death.”
Danz still enjoys hunting, whether it’s chasing deer with her .243 Winchester, ruffed grouse with her 28-gauge single-shot, or wild turkeys with her 20-gauge shotgun. “I love sitting in the woods and watching wildlife," she said. "I know I’ve succeeded when they’re just going about their business, not knowing I’m there. I love learning and recognizing their behaviors, and then sharing what I’ve learned.
“As a teacher, I like explaining the relationships we have with the land, and its plants, insects and animals; and how those things create ecosystems," she continued. "I wedge all those things into lessons about the environment we all live in. For every action, there’s a reaction. I try looking at things from all angles.”
Danz said it’s more important than ever to teach those relationships in schools, especially as American society grows more diverse. “We need to meet the needs of all students, and the outdoors and school forests offer great ways to do it,” she said. “It’s so gratifying when students come back as adults and tell you how something they learned in my classroom helped them later in life. That’s when you know you’re doing something right; that you’re making a difference.”
Wisconsin’s Teachers of the Year program honors instructors from elementary, middle and high schools; as well as special services. The five Teachers of the Year named each May are chosen from a pool of 86 candidates nominated by students, parents, administrators or peers.
All 86 finalists receive a $6,000 personal grant and $6,000 matching grant for their school from the Herb Kohl Teacher Fellowship Award. The five honorees chosen each May receive an additional $3,000. In addition, Danz received $6,000 as Wisconsin’s representative in the National Teacher of the Year program.
If she is named the nation’s top educator, she’ll become the first Wisconsin teacher to receive the award since Helen Adams of Cumberland 61 years ago. The national winner receives the award during a White House ceremony. Adams received hers from President John F. Kennedy in May 1961.
Lori Danz, a biology teacher at Superior High School, is Wisconsin’s Teacher of the Year, and will represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year program.
— Contributed photos
Lori Danz credits her father, Wally Wasko, for teaching her how to teach by taking her hunting and exploring while growing up in northern Wisconsin.
Cumberland's Helen Adams was the last Wisconsin educator to be named National Teacher of the Year. President John F. Kennedy honored her during a White House ceremony in May 1961.