Golden Apple Spotlight: Elizabeth Wieland

Occupation: Sixth-grade science teacher and theater arts elective teacher at Cheldelin Middle School.
Family: Husband, Adam, and an 8-year-old daughter.
In her spare time: She likes to spend time outside. “I’m a kayaker, so I like to spend time on the river, which is nice because we live in North Albany and the river’s really close.” She also likes to craft.
From the Golden Apple nomination: “She is the epitome of the warm demander with kids who struggle with behavior challenges. She knows how to be firm, yet kind, and give support in so many different ways.”


It happens every time, in every single one of the theater productions that Elizabeth Wieland helps her students stage at Cheldelin Middle School. In fact, Wieland makes a point of telling her students that the moment is certain to come up, sooner or later.
“I tell the kids, there are going to be times when you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so far behind, we’re not going to do it.’”
Wieland has the same answer every time the moment arises: “You’re going to do it. And it’s going to be amazing.’ … And every single time the students turn it out.”
“I think that’s why as a middle school teacher, I’m really drawn to teaching theater because I really think it’s like social skills with acting medicine,” she said. “And I think students bolster their pride and also learn teamwork with one another, which is really important in middle school because it can be an uncomfortable place.”

Wieland’s work with middle school theater caught the attention of her colleagues at Cheldelin, who nominated her for a Golden Apple Award, given each year by the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation to outstanding teachers and staff members.

So maybe it’s appropriate that a bit of acting subterfuge played a role in luring Wieland to the classroom where, unbeknownst to her, she was about to receive the Golden Apple.

Wieland’s teaching partner, Alexis McQuillan, frequently sends her text messages. “Sometimes she just wants to meet in the morning for a hug or something like that,” Wieland recalled. “And so she texted me, ‘Hey, can we meet today?’ And I read it as, OK, maybe she’s having a rough day or something. And so I went to her room and, lo and beyond, everyone was there.”


Reptiles and amphibians

Wieland didn’t plan on becoming a teacher: In fact, her first degree from Oregon State University was in zoology.

“I was really interested in reptiles and amphibians primarily and thought that I would go on to be either like a research biologist, or perhaps even like an exotic animal vet,” she said.

She worked in labs and then connected with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry for a job in which she went into classrooms and used live reptiles to teach about evolution.

“And that was probably when I first realized how much I really liked teaching,” she said. “And just how much I really enjoyed working with kids.”

That came as a surprise, Wieland said. “I’m an only child. And growing up, I definitely related more to adults around me.”

Her father, Phil Johnson, who taught for 36 years, encouraged her to pursue a teaching license. Wieland initially had doubts about that line of work – doubts that had been forged while she grew up and watched her father work long hours. “He was one of those teachers, like so many teachers, who kind of do everything,” she said. “He was always available.” Watching her father, the young Wieland found herself thinking, “I know I don’t want to be a teacher.’”

But it turned out that she really did.

She landed a job teaching at Sweet Home Junior High and taught there for eight years.

Applying for the job at Cheldelin was a bit of a fluke, she said.

“My husband was applying for jobs, and I was helping him with his resume. And I thought, ‘I’ll put my resume together, too.’ And then this job opened up at Cheldelin. And I had heard great things and thought I might as well check it out.”

She did. And she liked what she saw.

“The atmosphere really blew me away, just walking in the halls, the kids, the teachers, how they interacted with one another. It was like this really great community. It was positive. And I was like, I want to be part of this.”

Surprising choices

At Cheldelin, Wieland helps her students stage six plays each school year – two in each of the school’s three 10-week semesters. That doesn’t allow a lot of prep time, and so the shows typically are one-act productions that run for about 45 minutes.

At the beginning of each semester, “we take a lot of time to intentionally get to know each other,” through theater games and trust exercises. And then Wieland gives the class three or so scripts to choose from.

Each class seems to have a different preference in terms of genre, she said.

“Sometimes they’re into fairy tales. Sometimes they’re into sci-fi thrillers.”

Sometimes, their choices are surprising: Last school year, for example, the students staged two old-fashioned Agatha Christie mysteries. Wieland didn’t see that coming, but she was impressed with the selection: Christie’s devious plots can be tricky to follow, and the plays require a level of sophistication in delivering dialogue. But the students rose to the challenge, she said.

Wieland has learned to expect the unexpected from middle school students. And she loves it.

“Oh, I love the awkwardness” of middle school students, she said. “Like, I am awkward. And I was very, very awkward at that age. And I relate to that. But also, I think there’s something really exciting about being a part of a young person’s life, when they’re starting to figure out who they are. … Oftentimes, when a kid is figuring out their places and their identity, they can act out, sure. But it also is kind of a fun challenge for yourself in determining how to respond to that. How do I respond to a kid who’s struggling? And I think you learn a lot about yourself in that struggle.”

That continuous learning is part of what makes teaching so rewarding, she said.

“Teaching is such a great profession. It challenges you. And the challenges change every year, every day, they change with every new class. I knew I wanted a job that constantly kept me on my toes. And that’s teaching, that’s middle school, right there.”