'One in a million': Superior teacher Lori Danz named Wisconsin Teacher of the Year
The Superior High School biology teacher and school forest coordinator was one of five educators named a Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.
SUPERIOR — Lori Danz thought she was going out to the school forest Wednesday, May 11, to oversee a spy-themed lesson involving the Superior High School CSI class and fifth graders from Lake Superior Elementary School.
When she drove up in her truck, the Superior High School biology teacher and school forest coordinator got more than she bargained for.
The clearing was filled with students, current and former Superior teachers, school board members and Danz’s family. They gathered to celebrate the big surprise: Danz was named a 2023 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.
“This just means everything to see everybody here, my family and all the students and teachers,” Danz said through tears. “Very few teachers get recognized for the hard work that they do, in and out, every day. Those teachers do as much or more as I do. So this is for everybody, really.”
The outdoor learning classroom that students enjoy today was a collaborative effort, Danz said.
“Honestly, the message to me is things like this can’t happen with one person. Every teacher who’s been out here, every student who’s enjoyed being out here, ever administrator who’s supported us being out here. My family ... my kids have grown up out here … One person can’t do it. It’s our district—it’s everybody in this district.”
Wisconsin selects five teachers of the year annually. They are chosen from among the 86 Herb Kohl teacher fellowship winners for that year. Danz stood out from the crowd, Wisconsin Superintendent Jill Underly said.
“The inspiration that she brings to the students, especially in nature, and through this outdoor classroom and talking with the kids, reading more about her, we knew that she was really one in a million,” Underly said. “And so we’re very honored to experience her classroom with her, interact with the kids on the different projects and when they shared some of the things that they have done, and how you have helped them appreciate the environment and the natural habitat and the local geography and the economy, we know we made the right choice.”
So do the teachers and students who have been coming out to Danz’s outdoor classroom.
“I’ve never had her as a teacher at the school, but she’s always been super supportive and helpful every time we come out to the school forest,” said SHS junior Lucia Brue. “She always made everything fun.”
And Danz, students said, is never in a bad mood.
“Always positive. Always,” said Jenni Wolfe, a second grade teacher at Northern Lights Elementary School. “Anything can go wrong, and she just goes with it.”
Danz uses nature to reach students of all ages.
“She can work with anybody, from the young, from before kindergarten all the way. She can connect with kids who have a hard time learning. She just gets them so excited to be out here. I have so many kids (who) when they leave here, they’re just like ‘Oh, it’s the best day ever,’” Wolfe said.
The school forest coordinator brings the elements of curiosity and surprise to learning, Wolfe said.
“And she works at whatever level the staff is at. It’s always about the kids, but she always makes sure the staff has a positive experience,” said retired teacher Jill Shane.
For Danz, the moment she steps out of her truck at the 700-acre school forest, she’s on “forest time.”
“I think a lot of people see our forest as a place to learn science," Danz said. "And although that’s my passion, and you know, that’s what I chose to teach, what’s special about this place is it’s everything: It’s writing, it’s music, it’s art, it’s math, it’s science. So that’s, where a place like this is so special, because we can reach all students of all interests, and we just use nature as the context to do that.”
The school forest coordinator has a long reach in the district. Students of all ages visit the forest to learn.
“Many teachers see students for a year. And I have watched literally hundreds of students grow up and change from elementary students to high school students and now to parents who come out here and chaperone their students. And they all have stories,” Danz said.
The outdoor learning makes an impact.
“One of the things that means the most is hearing students share positive things, because that’s why we’re here. You know, we’re here to make learning a good thing and a happy thing and a meaningful thing. And if that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I signed up to do," Danz said.
Being named teacher of the year is more than an award. It’s a call to action.
“Teachers of the year have a platform and we’re encouraging them to each, you know, develop their own platform, but to really be advocates for public education and the possibilities of public education, and representatives of all the great things that are happening in public schools,” said Erin Forrest, educator recognition coordinator for DPI. “The things that Lori is doing here are so cool and impact so many students and she has some really great stories to share with folks."