PARKVILLE — For the past 15 years, U.S. history and government teacher Adam Laye has placed students at the center of learning, and has fostered relationships with every student to help enable them to succeed. He has an open-door policy and engages with students inside and outside of the classroom; in fact, he has eaten lunch with students to talk about the school year and has even helped shop for prom tuxedos.
All of these are reasons why Laye has been selected as one of 10 finalists for the 2021 National History Teacher of the Year.
“Most teenagers don’t care about concepts, but they will care about people who invest in their success and well being,” Laye said. “High school is a confusing and exciting time in a kid’s life, and I try to help them grow, by mentoring and supporting them, not just academically.”
Earlier this month, Laye, now the social studies department chair at Parkville High School, was selected by Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit organization dedicated to K-12 education, from a pool of state winners.
Laye, who holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a master’s degree in teaching from Frostburg State College, focuses on inquiry-based learning, arguing that it empowers students by making their insights feel valued.
“It is important to teach kids to be curious, problem solve, navigate complexity and use evidence to derive conclusions,” he said. “And those are the essential skills that I try to impart to my students.”
History, he added, is often taught simply as memorization of a series of answers, and he tries to reframe that technique by allowing students to ask and answer the questions themselves. He also tries to find real-world connections to his curriculum that young students already know about or understand.
For example, when he teaches about the origins of the Cold War and the split between the two major superpowers after World War II, he starts by asking students why breakups are so hard.
“Some of the same lessons students experience in relationships are some of the same problems that come up between the two superpowers,” he said.
In that same vein, one of Laye’s favorite subjects to teach is Reconstruction, he said, because some of the same social and political debates still resonate today.
“All roads go back to Reconstruction,” he said, “particularly in the wake of the social unrest of the past 18 months.”
Laye’s interest in teaching social studies emerged in college, partly because he felt connected to his own teachers. In high school, he said that he focused more on extracurricular activities and had sort of put education on the back-burner. But now that experience informs who he is today, because he can relate to students who are more academically adrift.
As department chair, Laye also works to support other teachers and help them develop professionally through advocacy and feedback.
“For a while, history and government teachers have felt secondary at best in terms of importance relative to other disciplines. I want to make sure that others know that what we do is important and matters,” he said.
The national winner will be announced later this month. An in-person ceremony for the winner will be held in late fall 2021, health and safety protocols permitting.