Originally created 04/18/99

Teacher helps pupils bloom



The inscription at the entrance of A. Brian Merry Elementary school says "The World's finest teachers are found inside these doors."

The inscription was written before Andy Baumgartner became a teacher there four years ago, but he's definitely lived up to the school's proclamation -- even the president thinks so.

During a ceremony Monday at the White House, Mr. Baumgartner will be recognized by President Clinton as the National Teacher of the Year.

With 23 years of award-winning teaching experience -- 17 in Richmond County -- and accolades from everyone who knows him, Mr. Baumgartner remains modest about the award.

"Being National Teacher of the year does not mean that I'm the best in the nation," he said. "It does mean that I am being given the opportunity to represent all of the wonderful things happening in education and all of the wonderful teachers that teach within the public school system."

Mr. Baumgartner, fondly referred to by many as "Mr. B," has been serving this year as Georgia's Teacher of the Year.

During his year off from teaching, he has presented and attended 248 workshops and seminars throughout the state, telling educators to find ways to foster to the needs of every child.

This is a message he will share with Mr. Clinton.

"I want to tell him our country needs to be aware of how wonderful our public school system really is, but how much in need our public school system is of more support," Mr. Baumgartner said. "I want to tell him that this emphasis on accountability cannot rest just with teachers, and in using standardized test as a measurement for accountability, we must realize that they are not the best measurement or the only measurement and we need to continually look for better ways to evaluate our student's progress and the success of our teachers."

Mr. Baumgartner's message has gotten through in his school. His pupils recently climbed all over him when they saw him.

He sat down with them in the middle of the floor and listened as they updated him on what they've been up to since last they saw him.

Trey Young, 8, a second-grader, who didn't talk much before attending Mr. Baumgartner's classes, told his favorite teacher about his new video game then explained what makes "Mr. B" special.

"He's the greatest teacher in the world," Trey said. "He helps us out and he's my best buddy."

The group of pupils hugged and played with Mr. Baumgartner, tousled his salt-and-pepper hair, and couldn't say enough good things about him.

"I like Mr. B because he's really nice and he made math fun," said second-grader Nathan Lewis, 7.

Mr. Baumgartner was born in Anniston, Ala., but raised in Hickory, N.C., Macon and Savannah -- traveling with his father, whose job as a Lutheran minister kept the family moving to different cities.

He decided to become a teacher while in high school, after volunteering to help mentally challenged students in a Savannah school.

"It was very rewarding," he said of his first experience with young children. "They were so responsive and they loved me and what I was able to give them. It showed me what joy there is in teaching other people."

Teaching, though, wasn't Mr. Baumgartner's original life plan.

"When I was growing up I wanted to be a Broadway star or movie star," he said, "Now, I guess in a way, I've gotten to the teacher's Oscars."

Mr. Baumgartner's parents said he was the child in their neighborhood who rounded up other children for play-time events.

"He's never been without energy," said his father, the Rev. H.E. Baumgartner Jr., of White Rock, S.C. "He nearly wore us out before he was six months old."

The Rev. Baumgartner said he won't tease his other five children about living up to Andy's accomplishments, but he says "I'm sure he will."

The Rev. Baumgartner and his wife, Frances Wisdom-Baumgartner, said they are proud of all of their children -- three teachers, a minister, psychologist and doctor.

"All of our children have done well," she said. "They are all special in their own way. This came at a real good time for Andy. He's a very caring, energetic person who loves people and is in the giving-field, like his father."

His mother said Mr. Baumgartner was a small child.

"He was so little, his (paternal) grandmother called him her little doodle-bug," his mother said. "I guess she's smiling down from heaven saying `her little doodle-bug did it."'

Mr. Baumgartner's stepson, Andy Cisick, also thinks his new dad is great.

"He came into our lives when he and my mom married and we clicked right away," said the 16-year-old. "We walk together, run together, ride bikes together, watch TV and we joke around a lot. My mom is always telling us to quiet down. My dad died when I was 9 and it's like God sent Andy to us."

Mr. Baumgartner has two other children: Jason, 23, a stepson, and his biological son, Brock, 21. Jason is the first of his children to finish high school, despite being severely mentally-challenged.

His biological son Brock also has a learning disability.

"Brock's difficulty in school taught me the importance of making sure every child in my classroom has some element of success," Mr. Baumgartner said. "And that each child that enters my class has a right to enter with dignity and exit with dignity."

Mr. Baumgartner's wife Nancy Cisick-Baumgartner, principal at Southside Elementary School, met Andy when he was named Richmond County's teacher of the year in 1997.

The speech he made during the ceremony convinced her that he one day would be her husband.

"His speech was touching," Mrs. Cisick-Baumgartner said. "It was humorous and theatrical and I thought `that's the kind of person I want in my life," she said.

The Baumgartners haven't had much of a honeymoon since marrying last July. They had planned to take a trip to Europe this summer but Mr. Baumgartner's national award forced them to postpone it until next summer.

Mrs. Cisick-Baumgartner said she's learned a lot from Andy.

"So many things come across my desk daily -- grant and contest applications, and I think this would be great for our school, then I'll tell Andy about it and he'll say `don't be surprised if no one jumps up and says I'll write that 400-page grant. He helps me keep things into perspective."

"I think he is going to represent the United States so well," she said. "He has such strong convictions. The award won't just be a crown, it will be a major job for him. He will have the ears of some big people and hopefully can make some changes."

Joyce Lifsey, Mr. Baumgartner's teaching assistant, already has seen the changes he has made.

"One child came to us barely speaking," she said. "Mr. B focused in on the qualities of the child and he has flowered since then. No one deserves this award more than Andy. I would have been surprised if he hadn't gotten it. He goes well beyond the call of duty in every aspect of his job. I always tell people he could get more done in one day than most people do in a week.

Richmond County Superintendent Charles Larke, who will be in Washington to present Mr. Baumgartner to the national committee at a formal dinner Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., said Mr. Baumgartner's accomplishment is something the whole state can revel in.

"I can't say enough about how much it means to the city of Augusta and the state of Georgia to have the national teacher of the year," Dr. Larke said. "This is reason to celebrate, not only for Augusta but for the state of Georgia to have its first winner."

Faith Johnson covers education and can be reached at (706) 823-3765 or faithj@augustachronicle.com.

Baumgartner quotables

-- "When I was growing up I wanted to be a Broadway star or movie star and I guess in a way, I've gotten to the teacher's Oscars."

Andy Baumgartner

-- "I think teaching is a gift. It is an art, a calling. It's something you must do because you love it and enjoy it. If you don't have that feeling for it, it can be a very difficult job."

Andy Baumgartner

-- "When you work with children all the time your life become adventure and discovery, so this year for me has been like being Alice in Wonderland. I just keep falling through a new dimension that's more wonderful and exciting than before."

Andy Baumgartner

-- "He's the greatest teacher in the world. He helps us out and he's my best buddy."

Trey Young, 8, a second-grader at A. Brian Merry Elementary School

-- "He's never been without energy. He nearly wore us out before he was 6 months old. We're glad he has the opportunity to remind the public of the importance of education."

The Rev. H.E. Baumgartner Jr., his father

-- "It's like God sent Andy to us. He came into our lives when he and my mom married and we clicked right away."

Stepson Andy Cisick, 16

-- "I'm not the least bit surprised. I would have guessed it a year ago. He's such an amazing person and so well deserving."

Wife Nancy Cisick-Baumgartner, principal at Southside Elementary School

-- "The main thing people need to know about him is he loves kids and he loves his job. You can see it in everything he does."

Kim McNeal, special education teacher at A. Brian Merry

-- "He's very vocal about his beliefs in putting children first. I always tell people he could get more done in one day than most people do in a week. He's like a hyperactive child."

Joyce Lifsey, teaching assistant to Mr. Baumgartner