Tucumcari history teacher nabs long-awaited honors

By Ryn Gargulinski: QCS

Tucumcari High School history instructor Michael Russell likens himself to actress Susan Lucci.

Not because he’s starred in soap operas or even teaches acting, but because he’s been up for Teacher of the Year honors for about a decade and never nabbed the title, not unlike Lucci with her daytime Emmy nominations.

This year he won.

“I got my 15 minutes of fame,” Russell laughed, adding on a more serious note, “It made me feel really good. I hope every teacher gets to have that feeling. It makes you want to do even more.”

Tucumcari High School’s Teacher of the Year Award is selected annually by student vote.

In addition to his full-time teaching gig in Tucumcari, where he’s been for 17 years, Russell said he is a father of four, is active in his church and maintains his love of sports by coaching baseball and serving as referee for volleyball, basketball and football.

When he’s not in the classroom or the ball field, he said one may find him strumming his guitar, jamming on his bass, drumming on his drums or pounding out tunes on the piano.

He’s even done recordings with his three older sons, who are already on their own and following their own drummer, so to speak, in the music field.

He said his youngest son, 16, still lives at home with Russell and his musically-inclined wife, and just happens to be a student in his THS history class.

“He was scared,” said the teacher of 32 years about his son sitting in a classroom with his dad at the chalkboard. “He heard all these horror stories.”

Russell maintains the Teacher of the Year distinction is not a popularity contest.

“Actually, I’m kind of hard on (students),” he said.

Student Anna Romero, a junior, who said she “absolutely” voted for Russell as teacher of the year, said his toughness comes with an explanation.

“He’ll give us these big, long tests but it always helps us to do better,” she said. “He’ll say ‘This isn’t to punish you, but to help you test better in the future.’”

And Russell said he’ll do what it takes to bring history to life.

“He’s very innovative and makes sure we retain information that is important,” Romero said.

“I want to show them history is more than just dates and names, but people who had real lives, just like you and me,” Russell said.

“The environment may change; technology may change,” Russell said. “But people never change. I want to teach the students they don’t have to make the same mistakes — or at least they can screw it up in a different way.”

Some of his favorite teaching methods are incorporating stories and anecdotes. One of his favorite subjects is Abraham Lincoln.

“He is one of the most fascinating historical figures,” Russell said, “with his personal struggles and his wit. People don’t realize the humor he had.”

Not only does Russell teach about what he calls “people of greatness,” but he instills in students they can become one of them.

“I want to show kids it’s not true they can’t be president just because they live in Tucumcari. With Abraham Lincoln, nobody was more hated as president,” Russell said. “And he is one of the most beloved today.

“I try to show kids that even if they’re not popular now, if they do the right thing they will prevail.”

Here are previous Teacher of the Year Award winners, as selected by students at Tucumcari High School:

2005-6: Michael Russell, history
2004-5: Bobby Laird, government
2003-4: John Spahn, P.E. athletics
2002-3: Antonio Pacheco, marketing
2001-2: Nicole Bright-Lesly, English
2000-1: Antonio Pacheco, marketing