PINEDALE – Stepping up to teach in front of a classroom filled with teenagers for the first time is daunting. Fortunately, educator George Vlastos found a mentor early in his career.
Her name was Cynthia Hollis, but she insisted everyone call her “Crocker.”
“She really made it clear that you can teach and know your content area, but if you can’t show up everyday with a sense of humor and compassion, and keep those intact as you work with students throughout the day, then you need to get out of the business,” Vlastos said.
Vlastos took his mentor’s advice to heart. He taught high school for 20 years in Casper before relocating to Pinedale Middle School. The veteran instructor approaches his students with a philosophy that combines empathy and encouragement to push young people to be their best.
“The biggest challenge is to get each and every student to understand that learning makes you vulnerable,” he said. “I have to remember that learning can come easy or it can come hard. But as the learner, you’ve got to be open to it, and a teacher needs to remain mindful of that with the student.”
A teacher’s primary role is connecting with students, regardless of what the student brings to the table, Vlastos said.
“It’s important to remember, we’re just human beings sharing some time. And that needs to be the first priority, that we’re all okay with being vulnerable (in learning). Then we can learn some stuff.”
This May, the Sublette County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees honored Vlastos as 2022 Teacher of the Year.
Vlastos received “multiple nominations from colleagues and students,” said middle school principal Eric Makelky. The district’s Teacher of the Year Committee selected Vlastos from a list of nominees based on a rubric, Makelky added.
“I’m a little taken aback,” Vlastos said. “It’s certainly humbling. This is my fourth year teaching in this district, and the first thing that became very clear after a week being under this roof with this staff is that they are all exceptional teachers.”
From olive groves to the classroom
The idea to pursue teaching was first planted by Vlastos’s high school English teacher, Mr. Widener.
“Day in and day out, Mr. Widener would make the class just come alive in terms of what we were doing,” Vlastos said. “This was not how I experienced the previous 10 or 11 years of teaching, and I thought that this was something I would be willing to do.”
After completing his undergraduate work, Vlastos detoured to the Greek island of Crete. His father’s family had emigrated from Crete where they owned an olive oil enterprise. Vlastos decided to give the business a try.
“I’m 11 months into just trying to make enough money off of olives and battling 40-year-old Albanian refugee women to keep a day job harvesting trees, and they’re outworking me,” he said. “It just gave me a good sense of finding priorities because it’s a real world out there.”
Vlastos returned to Casper, and to earn money, he took up substitute teaching. He realized he enjoyed leading the classroom.
“I thought about that teacher my junior year of high school and said, ‘I think it’s time to get my own class.’ I hustled over to the University of Wyoming, and in a year’s time, got myself certified.”
Following a year teaching middle school, Vlastos moved up to the high school level in Casper. A position opened up at Pinedale Middle School and Vlastos jumped at the opportunity.
Vlastos described the return to teaching middle school students as “refreshing.”
“Middle school students don’t get in their own way very often,” he said. “They are unrestrained in being able to react immediately, and in a very genuine manner, to what we’re reading and what we’re discussing. I can’t get enough of that.”
The world of language arts
Language arts are centered on reading and writing. In Vlastos’ classroom, the primary goal is preparing students for high school and challenging them with texts that go beyond the traditional middle school cannon.
Vlastos’ reading list includes poet Pablo Neruda and Jackson-based writer Alexandra Fuller. His eighth-grade class finished reading Fuller’s “The Legend of Colton H. Bryant,” about a young man growing up in Sublette County and his premature death working in the oil fields.
“Colton himself is so utterly relatable,” Vlastos said. “He is Western Wyoming – rodeo, oil field, gas field. You get to watch him struggle through school, finally graduate high school and step into the adult world.”
The students discussed similarities between Fuller’s book and the Sublette County they know while tackling a complex, advanced text.
“It’s not just another dog story,” Vlastos said.
Vlastos’s goal is to “push students to understand everything outside of this county that’s going on, and have them experience it through the written word, at the very least.”
Discussion plays a crucial role in Vlastos’s classes.
“We’ve got to make sure the students are reading and writing, but also that they’re speaking and listening,” he said.
Observing young people progress from knee-jerk, emotional, and at times, uncivil, conversation to a dialogue that is based on research, reason and reflection is rewarding for Vlastos. He considers it a success when the students take leadership of the discussion with minimal facilitation.
Vlastos also embraces what he calls “crossing curriculums,” collaborating with colleagues in different departments. Students recently read an article on whale migration and wondered why they were studying a scientific text in language arts class.
“Remember, it’s language,” Vlastos responded. “It’s the one thing that’s going to cross all these content boundaries.”
Technology’s presence in the classroom continues to grow. While digital devices have their place in learning, Vlastos requires the use of composition notebooks to foster writing by hand.
Witnessing students grow in the classroom inspires Vlastos to return to a demanding profession each year.
“The reward is when you’ve got a student that last year wouldn’t turn a page. This year, you see her with a book under the table. She’s just going at it with that book, and it’s okay. She might miss this particular lesson, but she’s all into reading. They come into themselves when a year or two ago, they weren’t there at all.”
Vlastos thanked Pinedale Middle School paraprofessional Monica Hunt.
“She has just been brilliant in being able to have some nuance in letting me know where maybe I’m missing something, because she is very aware of the whole class. She has this great sixth sense and probably taught me more than anybody since I’ve gotten here.”
Vlastos also thanked his colleagues in the language arts department – Emily Lucas and Clay Cundall – for the support and guidance over the last four years.