Dexter’s Drew Finkbeiner honored as an Ann Arbor “Exceptional Teacher”

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Drew Finkbeiner grew up just outside Lansing—in Bath and then Haslett. His mother, Betsy, worked as a school nurse in the Lansing School District, and later transitioned to running the Haslett Community Food Bank. His father, David, began his career as a social worker and transitioned working for the Michigan Hospital Association, ending his career as their Senior Vice President of Advocacy. Finkbeiner’s sister Kate is in her sixth year as a speech-language pathologist at Burns Park Elementary, and his brother Kevin lives in Traverse City and works as a production supervisor for plastics engineering.

Drew and Kristen Finkbeiner live in Dexter with their three children: Willa, 6, River, 4, and Walden, 1.

The Finkbeiner family has deep roots in Ann Arbor. Drew’s grandparents, Stanley and Arlene Finkbeiner purchased their home on Crest Street two blocks away from Eberwhite Elementary around 1950. Drew’s father attended Eberwhite Elementary as a child and Arlene, at 93 years old, still lives independently in the same home.

Finkbeiner earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Environmental Studies. Upon graduating, he moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to work at an outdoor camp leading backpacking trips for kids. He stayed in Steamboat Springs and worked as a severe needs paraprofessional at the local elementary school, which is when he realized he wanted to become a teacher. Finkbeiner then returned to Ann Arbor to enroll in the ELMAC program at the University of Michigan. After completing the program, he taught for five years in Steamboat Springs and five years in Oak Park, Illinois before returning to Ann Arbor.

Finkbeiner is in his fourth year at Eberwhite Elementary. His wife, Kristen, is also an educator. She has taught middle and high school English for 15 years and now teaches at the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE). Finkbeiner says he draws many ideas and inspiration from Kristen, as well as his mother-in-law, Margaret Holtschlag, a lifelong educator who was named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year runner-up for National Teacher of the Year in 2000.

What will you remember most about the school year 2020-21?
I taught from the same spot in our family den for the entirety of virtual instruction. My desk looked past the Zoom squares of my smiling fourth graders onto a large maple tree in the center of our yard. The experience of moving through a school year while staying in one place reminded me of a section from my favorite book of all time, a wordless graphic novel “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. “The Arrival” is the story of an immigrant who leaves his wife and daughter and journeys to a strange land in an attempt to find work and a better life for his family. He endures an entire year without his family, they only correspond by letters. At one point, Tan shows the passage of time by focusing on the progression of a single plant. It blooms, flourishes, loses its leaves, and then eventually buds again. I felt like I was in the same situation; isolated, working hard, and patiently waiting to be reunited with my school family. I watched my maple tree turn orange, lose its leaves, weather the winter, and then bud again, the entire time unsure of when we would return to school.

How is this year going so far?
This year is going very, very well. I thought there would be more noticeable differences in the students’ behavior and academics resulting from nearly a year of virtual instruction. I’d say this year actually feels better than normal for me because I feel so grateful to be back together in the classroom. I think the students have a newfound appreciation for in-person learning as well. The strong start is a testament to the hard work of my students’ families and their third grade teachers, as well as the resilience of the students.

Describe an average workday.
I usually get up around 5:30 a.m., to begin my day by exercising or doing a little reading and journaling. I really like “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday. It is full of thoughtful quotes and wisdom from the Stoics who lived thousands of years ago. Some mornings this plan works out, but often my four-year-old hears me get out of bed and follows me downstairs. In this case, I set him up with cereal and the TV show Bluey. I love the dad from Bluey so much. It’s weird to say that a cartoon dog is one of my role models, but he probably embodies as much wisdom as the books I’m reading. He is so playful, creative, and present with his kids. He just rolls with their wild ideas. What a great lesson for parents and teachers! I highly recommend Bluey if you haven’t seen it.

Starting around 6:45 a.m., the rush to get everyone dressed, breakfasted, packed, and ready to get out the door, begins. I am usually headed out between 7:30 am and 8:00 am.

Once I arrive at school it is full speed ahead until about 4:30 pm. There really is no downtime. I would say the majority of staff works straight through lunch and I am no different. After school, I try to have everything ready to go for the next day so I can be fully present with my family at home in the evening. When I get home there is usually time for some wrestling, drawing, or Legos with my kids before we have dinner and start the bedtime routine. After the kids are down my wife and I catch up, watch a TV show, and then read before bed.

What’s the happiest part of your day?
We are in an incredibly sweet phase with my one-year-old son Walden. One of the happiest parts of my day is when I get home from work and walk in the door. He sees me, gets a big smile on his face, and toddles over to wrap himself around my legs. The best part of a teaching day is when a student shares something with me, such as a piece of writing, that really clicked for them. I love hearing students creatively express themselves.

What’s one of your hidden talents?
I like to say that I am the “world’s okayest drummer.”

Apps you can’t live without:
I love listening to podcasts, so I would have to say my podcast app. And, honestly, I can’t break my Instagram habit. I love taking and sharing photos, reading silly memes, and keeping up with my old friends.

If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?
It would definitely be the answer to the question, “Are humans the only life in the universe?” Fun fact: in 1966 there were UFO sights throughout Washtenaw County that made national headlines. The most prominent one was above my neighborhood in Dexter.

Students’ family pictures create a wall collage.

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
Whew, I’d like to keep this positive, but since you asked… It’s very hard to love your students and know they are not getting what they need to succeed. Whether that is because of a lack of staffing, a lack of resources, or a lack of hours in the day. Our country hopes for maximum results from our teachers but offers what often feels like minimal investment. Many educators try to outwork this problem, but we have limited resources too – time, energy (emotional and physical), and logistical limitations. Add that to a structure that silos teachers and does not support movement within or around the educational “industry”, and a pay structure that tops out a third of the way into our career, and the teacher shortage districts are facing around the country is no surprise. I think this is one of the reasons educators leave the profession, not necessarily because of the workload, but because of the feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency.

“As my children get older, I am viewing teaching more and more from the viewpoint of a parent. And as a parent, it’s of the utmost importance that my children spend their days in a place where they are safe, respected, supported, and loved. I tell students on the first day of school that I will be their teacher, mentor, cheerleader, and protector, and I really mean that. It is a huge responsibility to care for a child—let alone a classroom of 26. So when I receive communication from parents that let me know that they are happy that their student has me as a teacher, it makes my day. It is truly a gift to be able to give a parent that peace of mind.”

Drew Finkbeiner

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
I began my teaching career at Strawberry Park Elementary in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. What stands out is that I had an awesome teaching mentor, Karen Goodman. She was working as a literacy expert at the time and she co-taught and collaborated in my classroom every day. This was an incredibly valuable experience that I wish was available to all first-year teachers.
We also took epic field trips. My class traveled to a fossil bed to hunt for 450 million-year-old ammonites which were as large as dinner plates. We also went caving in Glenwood Caverns.

What makes teaching at Eberwhite unique?
A school’s staff is what makes it unique and Eberwhite is no different. Eberwhite has a collection of kind, talented, and hard-working educators, and we are led by our fantastic principal Bill Harris. He likes to say that the teacher controls the
“weather” of the classroom. I think that is a great analogy, and Bill controls the weather for the school. He sets the tone for kindness, thoughtfulness, and professionality. He does so much, I’m pretty sure that he does not eat or sleep; I am
beginning to think that he is some sort of “altruistic vampire” who sustains himself on selflessness, compassion, and good deeds.
Joking aside, Eberwhite really does its best to consider not just the academic needs, but the social-emotional needs of our students. That is also a huge focus of mine as well. Perhaps that is why they hired me?

Tags from the story
Written By
More from Terry Jacoby

Cross Country: Dexter boys run second at Regionals, qualify for State Finals   

Next stop, Brooklyn. The Dexter boys’ cross country team crossed the finish...
Read More