The Dean's List

The best public high schools along the Front Range. Plus: an in-depth look at how the so-called Colorado Paradox has shortchanged our kids—and how we might finally be able to fix it.

September 2013


All In A Day’s Work

If every teacher maintained the same hellacious schedule that Amanda Westenberg does, how much better off would our schools be? From August to May, the Colorado Department of Education’s 2013 Teacher of the Year—a Rangeview High School social studies teacher and professional development coordinator—wakes at 2 a.m. each weekday and works until 4 a.m. “I try not to send too many emails then,” she says. “It’s kind of embarrassing. But I really feel like that’s prime time for me to think about my teaching. I do some of my best lesson plans then.”

From 4 to 5 a.m., the lithe 37-year-old fits in some rare me time, working out at home to Jillian Michaels DVDs. By 6:30 she’s showered, eaten, and driven from her Wash Park home to Rangeview in southeast Aurora. From 7:30 a.m. until 3:20 p.m.—apart from a 30-minute “decompression” lunch with her colleagues—Westenberg teaches courses such as Advanced Placement European History, 20th Century Conflicts, and Latin American History. (Average class size: about 35 kids.) During prep and professional development periods, she oversees student assistants, sends emails, mentors other teachers, and meets with teens looking for academic and emotional support. “By the end of the day, my room has had about 100 kids in it,” Westenberg says. “So I need some time for sifting, sorting, filing, moving, straightening.”

Then it’s on to the crisis du jour—someone missed a test and needs a retake; she’s scheduled a committee meeting with colleagues; or there’s a review session for her AP class. Westenberg normally heads home around 5 p.m. She might meet friends at Highland Tavern for happy hour or dine at Root Down before going to bed around 10. “Time is always an issue. If I only have, on average, a minute and a half or two minutes to spend with every kid throughout the course of the day….” She trails off. “But I’m going to find a way to make it work—because I want to.” That’s why Westenberg uses her summers to reflect on her own and her students’ performances, develop specific improvement plans and new curriculum, run workshops for other teachers, and take classes—sometimes for no additional pay.
Even though Colorado public school teachers make, on average, about $50,000 a year (26th on the national pay scale), Westenberg’s not complaining. “For my level of education”—she has a masters in education—“I may not make the same as other professionals. But I live a great life, and I have a great job,” she says. “The best part of my day is the kids; kids make my day livable and workable.”