Special education teacher Bawaajigekwe Andrea DeBungie had no clue Monday that the state schools superintendent was about to give her one of education's highest honors.
Although DeBungie works at Lake Superior Elementary School in the morning, the principal asked her to attend Ashland Middle School's morning student assembly, telling her a few special guests would be on hand to kick off Teacher Appreciation Week.
When she walked in she saw state schools Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor standing next to David O'Connor, who is the Department of Public Instruction's American Indian Studies Program director, and a representative from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.
DeBungie walked over to chat with them. The presence of education's luminaries still hadn't tipped her off that something special was about to happen.
But illumination began to dawn as Stanford Taylor revealed in her speech that a teacher of the year was present. Only Herb Kohl Foundation Fellowship teachers are eligible for the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year award, and DeBungie was one of them.
"Is she talking about me?" DeBungie asked herself. "No, she can't be. Is she talking about me?"
To DeBungie's shock and surprise, Stanford Taylor called her forward to receive the honor, which comes with a check for $3,000.
As she walked to the front of the assembly, her family, community members and the entire Bad River Tribal Council emerged from the stairwell where they had been hiding. DeBungie said her mother and daughter had known about the award for three weeks, as had a student who gave a speech about her.
"They all kept it a secret," DeBungie said. "I had no idea."
The whole child
DeBungie earned the honor after only 11 years in education, but she spent those years working in a diverse range of educational
institutions, including an Ojibwe language emersion school. During that time she came to embrace a teaching philosophy that inspires her to accept her students for who they are and teach to their mind, body, spirit and heart.
A child's heart can't be separated from his or her mind, DeBungie said.
"I accept them as they are and how they come into the classroom and foster that," she said. "There's a purpose for them in the classroom."
DeBungie sees her role as less about being the expert in charge and more about helping students learn — and maybe even teach her a few things — "so we're all learning with and from each other," she said.
DeBungie, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, grew up in Bayfield the daughter of a reading specialist teacher and a prosecutor for the Red Cliff Nation who is now a judge.
She always felt an inclination toward both education and law, but in the end she decided to follow in her mother's teacher footsteps when she was 17 years old working as an aide in her softball teacher's kindergarten class.
"I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'm meant to do — work with kids,'" she said.
After graduating with a degree in education plus minors in special education and First Nations studies from UWSuperior, she returned to Bayfield. Coming full circle, she accepted a teaching job that placed her in the same kindergarten classroom where she had settled upon her career path.
Returning to Bayfield was a chance for her to give back to the community that helped raise her, she said.
Five years later, DeBungie left Bayfield to work at Waadookodaading, a pre-kindergarten through seventh grade Ojibwe language emersion school near Hayward, where she also enrolled her daughter, Animikiikwe Durant, who is now 13.
But three years of commuting between their home in Washburn and Hayward started to take a toll on her daughter, DeBungie said. They decided it was time for Animikiikwe to attend Washburn Middle School.
DeBungie had always worked in a school that her daughter attended and wanted to continue the tradition. But there were no openings in Washburn, so she accepted a job three years ago in Ashland while becoming a school board member in Washburn to stay connected to her daughter's education and be involved in the community.
DeBungie has always taught in schools with a high number of indigenous children, working to close the achievement gap. She is pursuing a doctorate at UW-Green Bay in an indigenous education program — the first of its kind in the state, she said — so she can explore how the education system can support the success of American Indian students.
She feels blessed to be working in Ashland, where she splits her time between the elementary and middle schools, so she can strengthen connections with her community and family of the Bad River Band.
Besides tending to her students, DeBungie helps students write grants and apply to attend the Wisconsin Indian Education Association conference, and in the past helped create Native American clubs for students and educators.
She told the DPI: "Indigenous students are some of the brightest and most brilliant, and they must be looked at through this positive lens on a systemic level, otherwise they will continually be oppressed and stunted within the educational system."
When not in school, DeBungie is a volunteer basketball coach, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College academic board and is part of a group of jingle-dress dancers.
And she'll be plenty busy over the next year touring the state to participate in events and ceremonies related to her status as 2020 Teacher of the Year.
DeBungie said she was honored and humbled to win the Teacher of the Year award, emphasizing that it was a team effort and recognition should be shared among her community, colleagues, students and family.
She wouldn't have been standing in front of the student assembly holding the plaque if it hadn't been for all of the teachers she learned from over the years. And among those numbers she included her greatest teachers — her students — and her daughter, "who is my greatest teacher of all," she said.