Diane Woods isn’t a textbook U.S. history teacher, in that she doesn’t use one in her Burnet High School classes. Woods wants her students to experience history from a number of perspectives, and the best way to do that is through primary sources: hearing the words of those who actually lived it.
“I want them to get as many perspectives as possible about an issue or time,” she said. “History from all sides.”
That different way of teaching is why Burnet Consolidated Independent School District selected Woods as Teacher of the Year for 2021-22.
While studying the Civil Rights era, Woods teaches students about Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of that time. She also wants them to learn about civil rights movements from someone their own age, so it’s relatable.
Her students learn how people in the Northern states, far removed from the protests, sit-ins, and marches in the South, saw it as well as different generations within the same family.
“I think it’s important to know the story behind things, behind the issues,” Woods said. “I want them to figure out why things are they way they are.”
Those “whys” can be very different, depending on who is telling the story.
“I think we’ve lost the idea that we all have different experiences, and your experience may be different than someone else’s. And so, when we talk about things, we don’t always consider the other person’s experience,” Woods said. “That’s what I want to teach: my kids how to have conversations. I want them to realize we all come from different perspectives.”
Woods did not start her career as a teacher, though she comes from a family of educators. She first worked in the court reporting field and then at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
“I knew from all the teachers I’d been around about the intrinsic rewards of teaching,” Woods said. Eventually, she followed her heart into teaching. History was a natural fit. Woods enjoyed reading nonfiction and loved investigative work.
Students often learn about historic events for the first time in her classes. Beforehand, they might know the basic historical timeline of the United States, including the American Revolution and the Civil War, but have never heard of Jim Crow laws, when immigration quotas started, or the Cold War.
“Even the space race, they don’t know much about it,” she said. “They take it for granted that NASA has been around. I remember — I was really young — but I remember Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.”
Woods is often a primary source for her students. She’ll share how scary it was during the Cold War when the then-Soviet Union and United States seemed on the brink of war or other major events she’s seen during her lifetime.
The one thing she doesn’t do is tell her students what to think. If they ask her view on an issue, Woods turns it around on them with questions to help them make their own decisions.
“I want to give them tools so they can find resources or get as many perspectives as they can and make up their own minds,” Woods added.
Woods isn’t sure she deserves the Teacher of the Year honor. She pointed out the challenges with which all teachers have dealt since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago.
“This year has been a challenging one for everyone,” Woods said. “And, honestly, I believe, this year, every teacher deserves to be teacher of the year.”
History might agree with that.