Published 6:35 p.m. PT May 15, 2017 |
The walls and cabinets of Michael Lampert’s classroom at West Salem were covered, floor to ceiling, with pictures, papers, and posters.
The room served as a haven for Lampert’s students and their friends. During class, before and after school, and even during lunch periods, the room was never empty. It was occupied by curious minds.
But at the end of April, Lampert, 58, announced he was retiring after 30 years of teaching. He didn’t give much warning to his students — he told them on his last day, saying he didn’t want to make a big fuss.
“I’m just retiring, not evaporating,” Casey Chaffin, a senior at West, laughed as she quoted Lampert.
But as news spread Lampert was leaving, students rushed to his classroom to say goodbye. There was a line outside his door.
Lampert was taking down each poster and signing it with kind words and notes to each student who wanted one.
During his teaching career, Lampert taught at McNary, South, and West in Salem. He was awarded multiple titles, including Oregon Teacher of the Year in 2008-2009.
In addition to the time he spent in the classroom, Lampert did research around the world, including studying the ozone in Antarctica and testing nuclear bomb detectors on an island off the coast of Senegal.
Lampert also helped dozens of students receive grants, awards, and opportunities, whether it was the recent national win of the Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision program, helping students take part in countrywide cancer research, or when he helped students work with NASA, to name a few.
Jolie Gilman, the bookkeeper at West, knows Lampert well. There is a stack of binders and folders filled with grant applications, receipts, and filings in her office.
Gilman said the first time she met Lampert, she couldn’t quite understand him; he was so soft-spoken.
“But when I went to his class, it was like a persona on stage … creating magic,” she said. “His excitement was so contagious.” She said he has never lost that enthusiasm for what he does.
But according to Lampert, he wasn’t always that way.
“I was one of those teachers who couldn’t take it after three years,” he said. Lampert quit teaching when he decided to pursue his Ph.D. in physics instead.
But that didn’t pan out the way he intended either.
He went on a hike one day when he knew he wasn’t going to finish his doctorate and he contemplated going back to teaching.
“I thought, ‘If I go back, I have to do the very best job possible,'” Lampert said. So he did.
Lampert obtained tens of thousands of dollars for the school’s science department, he acquired new technology for his students, and he worked to get students excited about science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science reported in 2009 Lampert had already raised a quarter of a million dollars of grant money to fund his classroom activities.
“He finds a piece of science (for everyone), no matter what (they) like to do,” said Marcella Cross, a junior at West. “West is losing one of (our) best teachers.”
Cross and other students shared different science experiments they did in class, like cooking hot dogs with lights strung through the hot dogs, launching rockets, and working with the many animals — chickens, lambs, and even goats — that he brought to the school.
Principal Ken Phillips said Lampert was like a guide for the students to explore new things.
“There are some who teach the science,” he said. “(Lampert) wants (the students) to learn the science by using it. He wants them to get in there and play with the toys and then take it to the next level.
“He is not the norm … that’s what makes him special,” he said. “Everything he does is about the students.”
Chaffin, who also served as Lampert’s aid, remembered coming to Lampert as a freshman for help on homework she wasn’t understanding. He explained the concept four times before she understood.
“His tone never changed,” she said. “He was so patient. By the time he left, he was like family.”
Julie Brewen, whose son is a former student of Lampert’s, said Lampert is a teacher who impacts students for a lifetime.
“I’ve seen firsthand his dedication as he stayed after school and on weekends to mentor these teams,” she said. “His classroom exploded with curiosity-inducing objects obtained through his own experiences and through grants he pursued, and his stories of his research experiences around the world have inspired many.
“He has a passion for excellence and a gift for teaching,” she said. “He will be missed but never forgotten.”
Lampert said he could easily stay another 15 years, but “it’s time to move on.”
A new teacher, Marguerite McKean, has taken over his class for the remainder of the year.
“I can tell she’s someone who really cares about (her) students,” Lampert said.
Though Lampert has been able to live out many childhood dreams through his research, he now plans to achieve his dream of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, a trail of more than 2,650 miles that runs from Canada to Mexico and takes most hikers multiple months to complete.
Lampert said he has some kind of bug in him, he always wants to keep moving.
“It’s important to set goals,” he said. “I don’t want to sit on a couch, that’s the bottom line.
“Life is short — there is no waiting.”
Community speaks about Lampert
“He treats everyone like grad students — he respects our work no matter the project.”
“It’s pretty amazing, he’s changed so many lives.” – Marcella Cross, student
“It’s pretty much his fault I’m into science.” – Emma Fagan, student
“Everyday in physics, he blew our mind with something new.” – Dakota Story, student
“He wanted science to be playtime.” – Jon Williams, chemistry teacher at West
“He’s not just interested in kids who win awards. (The students) see the world in a new way because Mike was willing to take the (time).” – Christy Beckstrom, French teacher at West
“The biggest thing was his unrelenting excitement and enthusiasm not just for the topics being taught, but for the learning moment. He got involved not just in demonstrations and lectures, but also in making sure things ‘clicked’ with each student.” – Alex Edison, former student and doctorate candidate