Van Orden is Utah's top foreign-language teacher

Education » He passes on his love of Germany to students.
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Timpview High School foreign-language teacher Stephen Van Orden has Germany in his bones.

"I took German at Pleasant Grove Junior High, went on an LDS mission to Germany, Dresden mission, came home and majored in German," the German-language teacher said. "I did a master's degree in German lterature at BYU and studied abroad in Austria."

Van Orden has been named the Foreign Language Teacher of the Year by the Utah Foreign Language Association.

"I'm not surprised at all," said Timpview studentbody president Romy Franks. "He puts his heart and soul into it. It's a passion of his, and you can tell he really cares."

Says fellow Timpview student Luke Swenson: "His class is probably one of the most productive classes I've ever taken. Usually in high school language classes, you don't learn that much, but I feel competent in my German now. I can talk to people."

Van Orden isn't the only Germanophile in his family. His sister, Kaye Rizzuto, teaches German in Jordan School District, and his father, Bruce, also served an LDS mission there. As a student teacher, Bruce Van Orden, taught -- what else? -- German before becoming a religion professor at BYU.

"German was always part of my family's life," Van Orden said. "Everyone knew it was kind of our family's second language."

For Van Orden, teaching the language to teens is about more than conjugating verbs or memorizing the names of months and colors. He immerses his classes in all things Deutschland.

"Culture and language are all-encompassing," Van Orden said. "I can use music, I can use art, I can use history, I can use mathematics, I can use science. I get to be a little of every kind of teacher."

He also gets to be a tour guide. Once every two years, Van Orden takes Timpview students to see the country for themselves. They spend three weeks attending Timpview's sister school, Franziskanuem, located in Provo's sister city, Meissen. Karl G. Maeser, the first principal of Brigham Young Academy, "largely considered to be the founding father of Utah's educational system," says Van Orden, was born in Meissen.

Since 2001, the bond between the two cities has yielded a wealth of educational opportunities for students on both sides of the pond. Students at Timpview and Franziskanuem alternate visiting each other's schools each year. This fall, it was Timpview's turn to make the trip, and Van Orden took about 25 students.

"It makes German real for them, and it gives them a real context for what they're learning in the classroom," Van Orden said. "They can make a lot of progress with their language skills in those three weeks."

Franks found the experience so meaningful she plans to major in European studies in college.

"It opened my eyes to different possibilities for my future," Franks said. "Now I want to major in European studies just because the cultural experience and language experience was so superb."

Timpview assistant principal Rene Cunninghan sees Van Orden through the eyes of both parent and administrator.

"I personally have had several of my children in his classes, and he is just an outstanding teacher," Cunningham said. "I had a parent in here the other day say he actually saved their child's educational career, just being who he is and caring enough and working with their child through a lot of personal things."

If Germany is in Van Orden's bones, so is teaching.

"I come from a family of teachers," Van Orden said.

His parents were teachers, three of his siblings are teachers, and his wife, Alison, is also a teacher at Timpview High.

"I think I always wanted to be a teacher," says Van Orden, who is working on an educational doctorate at Utah State University and is one of a handful of Utah foreign language teachers to be National Board Certified.

He believes Utah lawmakers should provide funding for educators to become board-certified, a process that forces teachers to examine their techniques and get better at what they do.

"It would be the best thing we can do to really reform education and improve the quality of teachers in the classroom," Van Orden said.