LITTLETON - We all had nicknames for our teachers growing up. Imagine having a teacher named "Big Evil."
At 6 feet 5 inches, Steven Westra towers over his sixth graders at Ute Meadows Elementary School. He loves his nickname.
"I enjoyed watching professional wrestling, and the 'Undertaker' was my favorite character, and they called him 'Big Evil.' I made the mistake of sharing it with my students," Westra laughed. "They said, 'that fits you because you are big and sometimes you are evil.'"
Westra is demanding of his students, but he knows they can meet the challenges of sixth grade. From the first day of school, the kids embrace his competitive spirit.
"I believe their academic progress increases because they become more aware of specific goals. They're not thinking 'I'm at school. I'm going to do OK,'" Westra said. "They have goals in mind that they want to reach so they push themselves harder."
When you see how direct Westra is with his students and see how efficiently they use their class time, it is not surprising to learn he used to manage businesses. Education is his second career. As he enters his 13th year of teaching, Westra says the change was the best decision he ever made.
Westra is not too business-like. He works very well with his 11- and 12-year-olds. Ute Meadows Elementary School Principal Steve Weigum describes him as a "gentle giant."
"He stands tall, speaks with volume but treats children with a kind heart," Weigum said. "His ability to joke with them, motivate them and create relationships and trust is unmatched."
When a student writes a compelling essay or figures out a tough math problem, Westra makes a big deal of the child's accomplishments.
"It's contagious," Westra said. "When we start having celebrations and success, everyone wants to be a part of that."
Westra convinces students to take tests seriously without making them stressful. On test days, he will dress up in a sports jersey (he has a large collection). As he sees it, he comes dressed for "game day."
"Again, it's contagious," Westra said. "The kids start wearing sports jerseys and they come in like 'let's win! Let's do our best.'"
Westra jokes around a lot to get the class involved in the what he's talking about.
By the end of the year, every student will have a nickname (like him). "Quick" is for a boy who completes every assignment in record time. "Geek" is the name given to a boy who is brilliant at computers (referring to Best Buy's tech support team, "The Geek Squad.")
"I make sure that it's OK with them," Westra said. "I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. After the first one or two students get a nickname, and I see them smile, I know that they like it. Pretty soon, everyone wants a nickname."
Sara Wiechman (aka "Wishy Washy") wrote a nomination letter about Westra for the "9Teachers Who Care" award. It stood out among all the others. She wrote Mr. Westra "is the best teacher ever."
Westra had Sara last year in fifth grade. He moved with her class to sixth grade.
"I was convinced that after four years of hating math, there would be no way I would ever like it," Wiechman said. "Three days of math with Mr. Westra and it became one of my favorite subjects. He just makes it fun. He makes me feel like I can do something really, really good."
She went on to say, "he gives up the lunch time that most teachers use as a break from loud kids and relaxing time. He has a math club for students who need help on a concept their confused about."
Westra is quick not to take the credit for the Ute Meadows Math Club, saying he is more of an overseer. The group is made of student tutors who help other kids grasp math problems.
"I had a colleague at my former school who said, 'children remember approximately 10 percent of what they hear. They remember about 50 percent of what they see. They remember 90 percent of what they teach to someone else,'" Westra said. "By tutoring, they're helping themselves as well as helping the person they're assisting."
Westra also makes time outside of this work day to help students with public speaking. It shows when you hear Sara be this profound when speaking about her favorite teacher: "One of his often used analogies is that 'you have to work to learn the things you need to know, it doesn't happen by magic,'" Sara said. "I disagree because his teaching methods are magic."
To nominate a teacher you know who is outstanding and having a huge impact on the lives of children, visit our page devoted to "9Teachers Who Care:" http://www.9news.com/life/community/whocare/teachers/default.aspx
(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)