Jefferson Fietek is one of those lucky people whose childhood dreams about what they wanted to be when they grew up actually came true.
As a child he was fascinated by “The Muppet Show” and told his parents that’s what he wanted to do. “Be a puppeteer?” they asked. “No! Put on shows,” he said. He got an early start, frequently organizing the kids in his neighborhood and putting on plays in his garage.
He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in directing and acting and K-12 theater licensure. He taught preschool for six years, led acting workshops and taught Community Education classes, co-founded Young Artists Initiative to give access to the arts to inner city children and worked for Anoka Children’s Theater.
Today he teaches theater full-time at Anoka Middle School for the Arts and directs plays that go well beyond the usual level of middle school theater. He likes to choose works that will leave an important message with an audience, Fietek said.
Among the messages he has been emphasizing in his work and his life are that everyone deserves respect and that we need to stand up for those who are bullied or harassed, according to Fietek.
For his efforts, the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership presented him with the 2013 Reese House LGBTQIA Youth Advocate Educator of the Year Award at a recent conference in San Diego, Calif.
Nominated by a student and community member, Fietek was very surprised to be honored with the award. “They kept describing the work I do as being courageous,” he said.
“I remember what it was like to be a teenager and I think that kids today have a lot more to deal with – like cell phones and the Internet,” he said.
“When kids stand up for each other in a climate where it isn’t always OK to stand out, that takes real courage.”
One of the wonderful things about the award is that it made him think back to the great teachers he had and it reminds him how important teachers are in kids’ lives, Fietek said.
“Teachers have been a primary influence on me. Now I have the opportunity to give back,” he said.
Fietek grew up in Anoka-Hennepin and attended University Avenue Elementary School, Northdale Middle School and Coon Rapids High School.
He recalled his elementary music teacher, Marietta Miller, who produced “Fiddler on the Roof” and gave him his first opportunity to be in a “big show.” His sixth-grade teacher, Louise Mullen, got him excited about the possibility of being a teacher and his high school theater teacher, Rick Gabriel, was open to his idea of bringing elementary students into the school on weekends for workshops in the arts.
He feels extremely fortunate to be a full-time theater teacher in a middle school, partly because there aren’t many jobs like that and partly because it’s doing work he loves with students who are “eager to learn, passionate about things, and at an important fork in the road,” Fietek said.
At one point he wanted to work on Broadway, but that changed. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to go to a job everyday where people are excited to see you,” Fietek said “This is such a loving environment, even with the kids who are sometimes a challenge.”
Enthusiasm was evident as kids filed into Fietek’s first-hour classroom. They were laughing and joking, vying for his attention until it was time to settle down and get to work. They were creating puppets and writing scripts for upcoming presentations.
He likes to assign puppet projects at the beginning of new class as a way to help students find their voices, first behind the façade of the puppet before moving on to acting themselves, Fietek said. It helps develop confidence in expressing themselves, he said.
That’s why he feels teaching the arts is so important. “Arts allow people to express themselves and share ideas that may be hard to express in other ways,” Fietek said.
“I originally started using things like poetry and script writing and performance as a way to process what I was going through. If you are having a hard time, feeling angry or depressed, you can celebrate your gift. It may be playing your violin or doing sports – throwing the football or running. You need to do whatever makes you happy.”
According to Fietek, the arts are a great vehicle for empowering students who may feel different. “The arts seem to be open to all sorts of differences,” Fietek said. “Our paras talk about how they love to bring kids with special needs into our arts classes because they are always made to feel welcome.”
He takes great pride in watching students grow over the years. Some are in his classes all three years of middle school. At an arts specialty school he has the opportunity to teach students acting skills that he wouldn’t be able to do in an after-school play production experience alone, Fietek said.
Fietek has seen students blossom as a result, he said. “When they take that first journey on stage at school, you never know where they will go,” Fietek said. “It’s exciting to go to The Guthrie or the Minnesota History Theater and see my kids on stage.
“I remember Malick Ceesay who had one line in a show as a sixth-grader. Now he has done a Broadway tour and has had phenomenal roles in a lot of shows. It’s another thing that makes this job so great.”