The Teachers Who Change Lives


This weekend, my husband Gabriel, and our good friend Michael Booth, drove out to Marthasville, MO. Our 9th grade biology teacher, Ted Munnecke, and his wife Martha, were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Gabriel took this picture of me, Ted Munnecke, and Michael. It was a great evening, even if it was raining like crazy.

Every teacher wants their students to learn and succeed. But here and there, the academic universe glimmers with educators who inspire their students to think big, to be curious, and to actually love learning. Ted Munnecke (who retired in 1997 and now enjoys exploring the world and restoring historic log cabins) was that kind of teacher. Mr. Munnecke, or “Munn” as we call him, taught 9th grade biology, as well as more advanced classes like Marine Ecology, at Principia Upper School. He had already been teaching for a generation by the time I walked into his class as a freshman in 1990. In fact, Gabriel’s mom, Anna Lisa, was one of his students. Yet he still started each lesson with a look on his face that suggested he was about to tell us the most exciting secrets ever.

At least once a week, Munn sent us out into the woods with journal and pencil for solo time, showing us that our own observations were valid and worth recording. He also taught us about rainforests. First we learned about biodiversity, and then we learned about deforestation. On the back of the test for that unit, I sketched a tree falling over. Munn stopped by my desk and whispered, “it doesn’t have to be that way.” That simple thought helped inspire me to create my first book, A Walk in the Rainforest.

He also started the Teton Trip, which is an annual epic “field trip” to the Teton Science School in Kelly, Wyoming – during the last week in January. Principia has been sending juniors and seniors on this adventure since 1982. The idea is to make connections between art, science, and writing, as well as to connect the students to themselves, each other, and their environment. I started to ask big questions out there as a kid. (I love that I get to teach art on this program now that I am out of school and “all grown up”. Michael Booth, who got his Ph.D. in forest ecology from Yale, teaches the writing workshops. This year we co-wrote Wide-Eyed Weasels as a text book for this awesome program.)

My senior year, 1994, I took Munn’s Marine Ecology class. He let me paint an enormous coral reef mural down both sides of the hallway outside his classroom for my senior project. Now you can see how I was inspired to write my second book, A Swim through the Sea. He taught us about Jacques Cousteau, (who I eventually got to meet in person) and made us construct 3D models of imaginary filter feeder species.

I hope every kid gets at least one teacher like this.

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