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A teacher, a storyteller, a champion

For 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers—like Ben Colson—with the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, they've recognized 650 teachers. Click here to nominate another deserving teacher. New this year, you can also nominate a principal, school nurse, teaching assistant or other school staff member for the Educational Allies Award, recognizing the unsung heroes in our schools.

For Ben Colson, a high school history teacher, everything is a story.

Or at least everything starts as a story, then morphs into an opportunity to learn.

An anecdote about using a bathroom at a famous hotel turns into a yarn about how the term "lobbyist" came into fashion. A narrative about how his military family came to settle in Anchorage becomes a tale about the lasting effects of war on the woods of Virginia. A chestnut about his college gig hammering railroad spikes curves into a lesson on career advancement.

His roving narrations mirror his teaching style: fast-talking, spit-balling, campfire-esque dialogues that are less lecture and more information exchange.

"Here we're more the guides on the side, not the sage on the stage," Colson said of his role at SAVE High School in Anchorage, an alternative high school that specializes in working with juniors and seniors who are significantly behind in credit.

Colson was recognized as a BP Teacher of Excellence in 2013, chosen from more than 1,000 nominations across Alaska. SAVE High School principal Karin Parker said the fact that Colson's BP Teachers of Excellence nomination was student-generated speaks volumes to the work he does.

"He lets students know that someone cares about them and someone is going to be having those real conversations with them so that they can set goals and graduate," she said. "Those are lessons that go beyond school and into their life in general."

Colson's unique storyteller style works because of the unique nature of his job.

Whereas other Anchorage schools may have 40 students per class and a teacher may repeat the same lesson plan each period, SAVE has about 12 students to a class, but no two are working on the same thing. For Colson, that means prepping roughly a dozen individualized lesson plans for each of his six daily classes. Those student-specific plans are specially formulated to get them where they need to be to graduate.

"My job is to be like the parts guy at a car shop," Colson said. "You never know what the person walking through the door is going to need. You know it might be a Toyota part or a Ford part. I figure out what they need for their situation and I get them going."

It's a system, Colson said, that gives students the autonomy to rise. That is something they may not have felt in a more traditional school setting. Because the expectations are so clearly laid out — each assignment is worth a certain number of credit hours and each student needs a certain number of credit hours to graduate — it's more tangible.

This, he said, provides an environment more suitable to their needs and gives them space to discover themselves without being lost in a crowd.

Colson identifies with his students at SAVE because he too had a disrupted education. By the time he got to Bartlett High School as a freshman, he'd attended 17 different schools.

"I had a really diverse education growing up," Colson said. "I was bussed for integration in the South. I went to military school for a year. I went to six different universities in six semesters. It meant I learned how to work with and educate a variety of people."

Principal Parker thinks his ability to connect with students has a different source.

"I think, in some respects, he's just never grown up," she said. "I don't mean that as a bad thing; I mean he remembers what it was like to be a teenager and because he does, when kids share their stories or their issues with him, he's able to relate and what he says back has meaning."

Beyond his history classes, Colson hopes to teach his students how to prosper in other areas of their lives.

Sometimes that's teaching them life skills — like how to invest their PFDs, how to manage credit cards, understanding what a FICO score is and how to develop savings for the future.

Other times it's teaching through example, like proving adults can converse in a way that isn't aggressive.

"A lot of my students have never seen adults interacting in a way that's non-confrontational," Colson said. "They see, 'Hey you, give me my rent,' or 'Hey, you wronged me.' We model behavior as friends here, even if that's goofy, like another teacher asking if they sell men's clothes at the store (where) I bought my shirt."

Other times, it's teaching students to be their own advocates and asking for more work to do.

"I tell my students that their training and their high school diploma are some of the few things nobody can take from them," Colson said. "That's something they've earned. That's their badge. That's their medal. And they'll get out what they put in."

For Colson, championing for his students and making them feel at home at SAVE are some of the most important aspects of his job.

"If I were a farmer, I'd throw the bad apple away," Colson said. "But we take everything we get and put a shine on them. That's our job here. We don't want to throw these people away. We want them here, want them learning. We do the best we can and, if you ask them, they'll tell you they like it here. This place is their family."

This story is sponsored by BP, champions of educational excellence throughout Alaska.

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.