Tahoe elementary educator is Teacher of Year finalist

Katie Fagundes
Special to the Bonanza
Courtesy Michael Gelbman

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Incline Elementary School teacher Eric Harssema was selected as the second finalist for Truckee Hometown Sears-Sierra Sun Teacher of the Year.

Harssema impressed the selection committee, including representatives from Truckee Hometown Sears, the Sierra Sun and new sponsor, Plumas Bank, by his commitment to create new opportunities for his students and his school as a whole.

On March 15, Charlie Riley, owner of Truckee Hometown Sears, and Michael Gelbman, publisher of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, met with Incline Elementary Principal Kathleen Watty to present Harssema with a finalist certificate. Harssema was also awarded a $50 gift certificate to La Fondue restaurant, courtesy of Plumas Bank, and a $50 gift certificate to Truckee Hometown Sears.

“Eric is a very deserving finalist for teacher of the year,” Watty said. “He has a passion for the Tahoe region and is making students aware of their surroundings and all of the possibilities that living in Tahoe affords students.”

Eric Harssema

Eric Harssema, originally from Cleveland, majored in Outdoor Adventure Recreation at Ohio University. Harssema and his wife, also a teacher, spent one summer living in Truckee while looking for a place to relocate and decided to move there the following summer to start their careers and a family.

Harssema did not always plan to go into teaching. While studying outdoor education he saw the value of working with groups and enjoyed educating youth. His interests led him to work in schools in coaching positions and as an aide. After earning an MA from Sierra College, Harssema accepted a position teaching fifth grade at Incline Elementary School four years ago.

Since starting at Incline Elementary, he has taught fifth grade, Spanish and fourth grade; he currently teaches second grade. Although switching grades each year has been challenging, Harssema feels it has made him a better teacher by giving him a unique perspective.

“I know 90 percent of the students,” said Harssema. “I stay connected with students from past years and work to continue the programs I have built so they keep going; I have a lot of buy in to the whole school.”

Harssema’s dedication to students and development of school-wide projects has brought him praise from students and colleagues.

“Eric has been a major inspiration to the teachers at Incline Elementary,” wrote one nominator. “When he puts a new field trip together, he does so for entire grade levels, not just a single class.”

Harssema has planned multiple field trips. Students have gone to beaver dams, the Incline Flume Trail, Spooner Lake and a ropes course. Field trips focus on science and history curriculum, but Harssema also uses them to inspire student writing.

“Students write based on their experience,” said Harssema. “When you give students something to write about, it levels the playing field.”

Harssema has worked to create multiple programs to help educate all students at Incline Elementary. He developed a school-wide science and outdoor education program by securing a full time AmeriCorps member at the school. The program includes the creation of a science lab with supplies for students and teachers to use.

Currently, Harssema’s second-graders are working on their own Incline History Museum. After studying the history of Incline as a part of their community curriculum, students used time in their engineering class to create large models of significant places including Virginia City, the Flume Trail, mines and the “Great Incline.”

Students wanted to share their models with the school, so they sent a proposal to Principal Watty and are now using a storage room to house their museum. The museum includes their models, artifacts and a video, and is now open with the second graders acting as docents.

Harssema credits much of his success to using the resources around him. He is grateful for the help from “amazing parent volunteers” as well as mentors and tutors from Sierra Nevada College. He also looks for opportunities to involve the community in the school through his various projects.

“Living in Tahoe, there is no excuse for not taking advantage of where we live, the natural resources and great organizations in town,” said Harssema. “Education is a part of many nonprofit mission statements; I try to coordinate resources and bring the community into the classroom.”

Harssema is motivated by the desire to create opportunities for his students that may otherwise not be accessible. He sees a push for science and outdoor education at private schools and wants the same opportunities to be available at public schools for his students, and in the future, for his 3-year-old son.

Motivation is central to Harssema’s success and teaching philosophy. He describes his current students as “super motivated kids.”

“Teachers can worry about standards and content, but (students) have to be motivated and interested,” said Harssema. “We have had a good year so far and I want to keep the momentum.”

The second graders next project will be to participate in Diamond Peak’s Dummy Downhill. The class will use engineering time to construct their dummy for the event on April 7, 2013. Diamond Peak has also donated lift tickets, rental equipment and ski lessons for that day.

Overall, Harssema’s students are motivated, engaged and have a lot of fun — but the focus is always on student learning.

“Eric is an extremely flexible teacher who is able to turn even the tiniest thing into a teachable moment,” wrote one nominator. “(He) asks a lot from his students and it only takes one minute of observing his teaching style to know that he is creating critical thinkers.”

“Kids are pretty darn bright,” said Harssema. “I have found anything you throw at them they can make sense of.”

The 2013 Truckee Hometown Sears-Sierra Sun Teacher of the Year selection committee is still receiving nominations. Please email nominations to or drop off nominations at Truckee Hometown Sears or the Tahoe City, Kings Beach or Truckee Plumas Bank branch.

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