History detective: Snoqualmie's Tom Burford is Middle School Educator of the Year

History teacher Tom Burford tells his students a story. - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
History teacher Tom Burford tells his students a story.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

No one wants to leave Thomas Burford’s classroom in Snoqualmie Middle School, although the bell has rung. A few students are edging toward the door, as Burford hurriedly finishes telling his story of the four-state April Fool’s joke, but almost all of them wait to hear the whole thing.

It’s not just that they went to know what happened, since he tells them up-front what the joke was. They want to know what happened next, to find out how the joke could affect people in four different states, and months later.

That’s how Burford, recently named the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation Middle School Educator of the Year, makes the last few minutes of his history class count.

“We had just finished with three days of presentations, and we had 15 minutes left,” Burford explained after class. No time for much of anything, but a good story would nudge them down the path of “playing detective” that they’re already on in class.

Studying history, Burford says, is like playing detective.

“Every year, I ask my students if they watch ‘CSI’” he says, because the format is like the modern study of history. “We know what happened, there’s usually a grisly murder, and the rest of the show is figuring out how it happened.”

Taking that a bit further, “We have the Declaration of Independence, but why was it written? When we can understand that, then we can start piecing together the American story.”

Burford can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in the American story, and in playing detective. He read about historic figures and events throughout school, and still frequently refers people to good reads on history, many from his favorite historical author Stephen Ambrose.

“No one gets turned onto history by reading a textbook,” he said.

Despite his lifelong interest in the subject, teaching history is a relatively new phase in his life. It started in the early 90s when he decided to pursue his teaching certification and master’s degree simultaneously. He taught and coached in Missouri, where he grew up, then in Texas where his then-wife was transferred for her career. Another transfer brought him to Washington in 1999, and he began teaching eighth grade history at SMS in 2001.

He’s the only eighth grade history teacher, seeing more than 130 students every day, but he doesn’t feel alone in that role.

“We have a team concept, and I work with wonderful teachers,” he said, adding that the staff at SMS is “very much a family.”

He works most closely with the language arts teacher, but he also collaborates with history teachers in other middle schools (Emily Rourke at Twin Falls and, in the past, Dean Snavely) to lead eighth grade students on a trip to Washington, D.C.

“It is the highlight of my summer,” he says. “I love that trip…. I love what our founding fathers set up. What they did had never been done before….The Declaration of Independence, what a masterful piece of writing, especially when you break it down, which we do in my class.”

The Declaration, and the Constitution with it, are still very relevant today, he says, and he demonstrates that to students with things like a presentation from a guest Highway Patrol officer on the Fourth Amendment.

“I try to make it relevant to their own lives,” Burford said, “…when you can tell them how their rights are affected, then they start to pay attention and want to know  more.”

He also uses humor, he said, “and with middle school kids, the grosser you can make it, the better!”


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