Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Twenty years ago, Hilary Wimmer started out as a recruiter for the suburban Adams 12 school district north of Denver. Then a trip to Las Vegas changed everything. 

Wimmer and one of the district’s principals, Julie Enger, traveled there to interview math teachers, but Wimmer was the one who ended up being recruited. 

Enger “somehow planted the idea of teaching in my head,” said Wimmer, who’d always planned on a career in business. 

Wimmer enrolled in a two-year alternative licensure program at a local university and now teaches business and finance classes at Mountain Range High School in Adams 12. She also chairs the school’s career and technical education department and sponsors the state’s largest chapter of DECA, a business leadership organization for students.  

Last month, Wimmer was named Colorado’s 2020 Teacher of the Year during a surprise ceremony in her school’s packed gym — an assembly she first thought was a cancer fundraiser.

Wimmer talked to Chalkbeat about why she’ll promote financial literacy during her tenure as Teacher of the Year, what she does to prepare students for a “zombie apocalypse,” and, movingly, how a former student she once helped through a family tragedy responded when she experienced a heartbreak of her own. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I took quite a few career tests when I was younger and they all mentioned teaching. However, I had my mind set on studying business and working in business. In 1999, I started working for Adams 12 as a recruiter. I took a principal — my current principal, Julie Enger — on a recruiting trip to Las Vegas to have her interview math teachers. She somehow planted the idea of teaching in my head.

I enrolled in the Teacher in Residence program through Metro State University in Denver. Every Monday, I had class from 5-8 p.m. and I would use what they taught me in class that week. It was a fantastic experience and I definitely encourage people to explore an alternative pathway if they are thinking about teaching as a second career. 

How do you get to know your students?

I try to focus on learning more about one student in every class on every school day. Talking to people is something that I enjoy, so this comes pretty naturally for me. Also, I sponsor our school’s DECA chapter, which provides me with the opportunity to bring students to conferences and I get to learn quite a bit about students on the bus rides and at the conferences.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lesson is our zombie apocalypse lesson, which teaches students that businesses can solve any problem in the long-term. During the lesson, I surprise the students with an emergency alert announcement about zombies. At first, the students don’t know if the announcement is real, so they get a little worried. After I tell the students that there is not really a zombie outbreak, they have to work together to create a business that would help people during the zombie apocalypse. They love this assignment and their presentations are fantastic.

One of your priorities as Teacher of the Year is to advocate for financial literacy education. Why is this important?

Currently, Colorado students are not required to take a financial literacy course. This means most of our students are leaving school financially illiterate. They will learn personal financial management through mistakes and errors. Typically, these students start out in life by taking on a significant amount of debt in the form of student loans or credit cards. They spend most of their adult life trying to recover from financial mistakes they make in their early 20s.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Last school year, my DECA students educated me on the growth of vaping among students. My students became my teachers and helped educate me on all of the vaping products — cost, access, and the factors that encourage students to try vaping the first time. After speaking with students and conducting student focus groups, I quickly realized how vaping was a serious epidemic that was impacting nearly 45% of our student population.

Through the focus groups, I found that the “typical” student tried vaping the first time for the variety of flavors. They said that the vape tasted like “cherry” or “cotton candy” and that the pods smelled delicious. Many of the students we met with disclosed that they were addicted the first time that they tried it. After many focus groups, I realized that we were dealing with students that had developed addictions at very young ages – as early as sixth grade. Many students expressed the desire to quit due to the expense, but could only do so for hours or days.

I worked with a group of DECA students to host a school-wide awareness day last March: “Day Without Vape.” We created a logo and ordered shirts for our staff members and student leaders.

We asked all teachers to post the Text to Quit Number on their classroom boards and we also advertised the number in video board announcements. We posted flyers with vaping statistics in all of the bathroom stalls and in the cafeteria, and handed out stress ball “lungs” to help students find another way to cope with their anxiety.

The event was a great success. We had seven students voluntarily turn in their vaping pens. I was extremely moved when a young girl promised to quit and handed over the pen to me. I took her to see the principal. The student was worried that she would get in trouble but the principal congratulated her and offered her words of encouragement. The counselors also saw an increase in the number of students coming in for help with vaping addictions. 

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my alumni recently had a tremendous impact on me. I taught this student two years ago. I vividly remember when I learned from his family that his brother had died by suicide. My heart broke for him and I tried to support him in every way possible to help him try to find healing. My heart was shattered for him and I couldn’t imagine how it felt to lose a sibling in such a tragic way. 

Last April, my own little brother died by suicide. One of the first people who approached me was my former student. He sent me the sweetest, most heartfelt message letting me know that I was one of the people who helped him through the loss of his brother. I realized that my former student was now my teacher. He began sending me messages of healing to help me start the healing process.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

When I started teaching, I had one major misconception. I thought that I was going to deliver life-changing lessons the first day of school at 7:30 a.m. I vividly remember calling my husband after my first class on my first day. After my first lesson, I was second guessing myself. I couldn’t believe the students were not excited and completely engaged. He laughed at me and kindly reminded me that it was the first day after summer break. He joked with me and let me know that most high school students don’t wake until noon during the summer. His phone call relaxed me and everything got better after that. 

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am such an adult nerd. One of the things I am addicted to is learning and I love to read. I enjoy reading the Wall Street Journal. Last week, I finished “The Dressmaker’s Gift” [by Fiona Valpy], a fiction book about the Holocaust. Now, I have moved onto the “Handbook of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda: An Integrated Practice of Ancient Healing Traditions” [by Bridgette Shea]. After traveling to China with students, I have really gained interest and respect for some aspects of Eastern medicine. Over the past year, I have discovered acupuncture and how relaxing it can be. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I have ever received about teaching is that all students are capable of learning, so teachers just need to provide the “why?” I try focusing on why learning what we are learning is important. I know if I provide the purpose and the chance to use the concepts and content in a meaningful, hands-on way, they will learn and they will retain what they learn.