Close-up: Greg Poduska

Greg Poduska has been teaching at Jackson Hole Middle School since 1998. He was recently nominated for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year award, a national honor that recognizes the country’s best history teachers.

Greg Poduska has a pretty simple goal: He wants to be tired.

Maybe not on a daily basis, but Poduska, a history teacher at Jackson Hole Middle School, wants to end his career like a cross-country runner finishes a race.

“When I’m done I want to be exhausted and say I gave it everything I could,” Poduska said.

Giving everything to your job might seem like a platitude, but in talking with Poduska it’s evidently essential to his teaching philosophy. He speaks quickly and passionately, diverting onto tangents or inserting anecdotes about colleagues before returning to his original point.

Poduska’s passion for his job hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has been nominated for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year award through National History Day, a national education nonprofit. Each of the 58 National History Day affiliates can nominate a middle school educator who uses the nonprofit’s curriculum and “demonstrates a commitment to engaging students in historical learning through innovative use of primary sources, implementation of active learning strategies to foster historical thinking skills,” according to a statement.

The National History Day program encompasses a monthslong project on a theme that changes each year. This year’s is “breaking barriers.” Students start with an idea, research it, develop a thesis, create a project to present their findings and participate in a competition with other schools.

Students in Poduska’s classes spend nearly the entire winter on National History Day projects, finding motivation in spending three months on a single piece of work.

“You can see it once that spark is lit,” Poduska said. “They are like, ‘I have a purpose.’”

Poduska’s life as a teacher didn’t start with his nomination for a national award. His father’s job at Eastman Kodak, better known simply as Kodak, moved the family around the South and the Northeast when Poduska was a kid. While finishing graduate school he moved to Jackson and, like countless others before him, got a job on a ranch.

He went back to New Hampshire to finish his thesis, and after obtaining his degree he hightailed it back to the Tetons. Riding a “mass exodus” of teachers, Poduska and a wave of other educators snagged school district jobs in the late 1990s.

Poduska had applied for a long-term sub position, but a language arts and history teacher unexpectedly departed during the summer to care for a sick relative, giving him the chance to land a full-time gig.

“From that moment I was double timing at the ranch, and at night I was creating curriculum,” he said.

Though he has always been a middle school teacher, he has changed grades from time to time. He started in seventh grade, then moved to eighth grade after seven years. After Poduska put in seven more years teaching regular eighth grade, Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller, who was then leading the middle school, asked him and colleague David Wells to bring the National History Day program to the middle school.

Now, after a decade running eighth grade history with that focus, Poduska has moved to a split role teaching both seventh and eighth grades.

“One of the cornerstones of my life is don’t ever get too comfortable,” he said. “You invariably get old in your ways. By jumping into new things you keep yourself invigorated.”

Even with the change, Poduska intends to still use the National History Day curriculum. Beyond the benefits he enjoys from the inherent variety that comes from teaching it year after year, he sees the curriculum as incredibly valuable for students, and he is now the only teacher at the middle school who uses the program.

Unlike other complex, lengthy programs that are usually reserved for high-achieving kids, Poduska allows any student who applies into his National History Day class. He does a “dog and pony show” for seventh graders, and any who are interested and turn in an application are accepted.

By taking all kids — whether they are in special education, are English language learners or are straight-A students — Poduska gives them an opportunity to become profoundly attached to the process of learning.

“The program might be the spark that takes a kid from getting referrals to doing well,” he said. “You can take a kiddo that is struggling to find themselves academically, and they can rise to the occasion big time.”

The National History Day state competition, which is usually held at the University of Wyoming, was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which also moved teaching online. Poduska, like in all other things education, has thrown himself headlong into distance learning. He described it as another challenge to overcome, though he admitted it likely wasn’t the best mechanism for reaching all his students.

In the eyes of the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, Poduska is rising to the task. At the end of each monthly meeting, trustees can take a few minutes to talk about essentially whatever they want. At the meeting last week, Trustee Keith Gingery praised the work of teachers who have adapted to teaching remotely at the drop of a hat, taking a moment to single out Poduska by name.

“At the middle school, what they’re doing there is amazing,” he said. “I don’t know if you know Stephen Prange, the math teacher, he’s a rock star.

“And Mr. Poduska, of course. You just can’t say enough about him.”

For a teacher like Poduska, those words might affirm his dedication to the craft, though he’d probably argue that student success is the true affirmation. Coupled with his wife, Tracy, the principal at Jackson Elementary School, his family “lives and breathes education,” and distance education is simply a new way to reach students.

When Poduska finds out if he is the winner of the National History Day Teacher of the Year award in June, school will be out, even if the outbreak lifts and buildings are reopened. No matter how the school year ends, he will have had a hand in sending another crop of students through to the high school, some equipped with brand-new research skills.

And with any luck, he’ll be exhausted.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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