Victor Akemann, an advanced biology teacher at Stevens Point Area Senior High (SPASH) and Karen Johnson-Zak, who teaches French at Gibraltar High School, will be honored as the 41st and 42nd recipients of Lawrence University’s Outstanding Teaching in Wisconsin Award Sunday, June 13 during the college’s 155th commencement. Both will receive a certificate, a citation and a monetary award.
Established in 1985, the teaching award recognizes Wisconsin secondary school teachers for education excellence. Recipients are nominated by Lawrence seniors who attended high school in Wisconsin. They are selected on their abilities to communicate effectively, create a sense of excitement in the classroom, motivate their students to pursue academic excellence while showing a genuine concern for them in as well as outside the classroom.
A former marine mammal scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studied Dall’s porpoise in the north Pacific Ocean near Seattle, Akemann has taught advanced biology at SPASH since 1990.
In 1994, he co-founded Wisconsin’s first charter school — the Education for Sustainable Development Charter School (ESDCS) — a school-within-a-school at SPASH focusing on the interplay between the environment, the economy and social equality. Since the fall of 2002, he also has served as ESDCS’s program director.
Senior Allison Dietsche praised Akemann’s unbridled enthusiasm for his subject matter and commitment to working with individual students in nominating him for the teaching award.
“You always knew he was genuinely excited,” Dietsche said in her nomination letter. “He was animated in the classroom when he taught an always had awesome class projects planned. He made himself available early in the morning or after school and always made time for his students.
“He refueled my love for biology. If Mr. Akemann wasn’t the inspirational teacher that he is, I would not be as successful as I am today,” Dietsche added.
A member of numerous professional organizations, including the National Center for Science Education and the National Science Teachers Association Akemann was recognized in 2002 as Wisconsin’s outstanding biology teacher of the year by UW-Stevens Point. In 2003, Akemann was one of eight teachers honored from a national list of 78 nominations by the University of Minnesota with its outstanding science teacher of the year award.
Before starting his teaching career, Akemann spent two years with the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in Ashland as a producer of nationally-syndicated radio news programs on ecological issues.
Originally from Milwaukee, Akemann earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Northland College and will complete his master’s degree in education at UW-Stevens Point this summer.
Johnson-Zak, a graduate of Gibraltar High School herself, began her 33-year teaching career at Farnsworth Junior High School in Sheboygan before returning to her alma mater, where she has served as a one-person French department since 1973.
Shortly after returning to Gibraltar, she began organizing “immersion” field trips to France, leading as many as 50 students on some excursions to Paris and other locales where students would spend a week or more living with French host families.
“Karen Johnson-Zak is the epitome of what I consider an excellent teacher to be,” wrote Lawrence senior and 1999 Gibraltar graduate Nate Jacobs in nominating his former teacher for the award. “Her abilities in effectively teaching French perfectly balance serious study and fun, making the often tedious process of learning complicated verb conjugations and pronunciation pass without extreme difficulty.
“Mrs. Johnson-Zak’s influence on my life cannot be measured,” Jacobs added. “Without her positive teaching style, I would never have appreciated, or ventured to partake in, many of the international experiences I have had.”
Born and raised in her current hometown of Sister Bay, Johnson-Zak earned a bachelor of science degree in education from UW-Oshkosh. She is a member of the National Association of Teachers of French and the Wisconsin Association of Foreign Language Teachers.