Leaving at the head of the class (11/13/08)

CVU bio teacher Ely wins national award in final year at school

Nov. 13, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

For more than 30 years, Champlain Valley Union High School teacher Dave Ely has been molding the minds of future scientists and doctors with his enthusiasm for biology and deep commitment to teaching students not just about science, but about life.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Dave Ely, Champlain Valley Union High School’s Advanced Placement biology teacher, recently received the national American Star award from the U.S. Department of Education. Ely said he plans to retire this spring after 36 years of teaching. 

Ely, the high school’s longtime Advanced Placement biology teacher, will retire at the end of the school year after 36 amazing years, he said. He admits the thought of retirement is bittersweet, but at 64 years old, Ely wants to go “out on top.”

“I don’t want to be in a position where kids say, ‘Well, he used to be a good teacher,’” Ely said with a smile.

Recently, Ely was recognized for his teaching with the American Star Award from the U.S. Department of Education. Ely, the sole Vermont winner, was nominated by friend and colleague Judy Allard, a retired Burlington High School biology teacher. Ely was “absolutely the first name” Allard said she thought of when she learned about the award.

Allard, who has also won many teaching awards, said Ely cares deeply for his students and stands out because of his passion.

“He really tries to apply what he’s teaching to their lives,” Allard said.

CVU Principal Sean McMannon, who first told Ely about the award, wrote a letter of support to the Department of Education. He said Ely’s impact on his students makes him worthy of recognition.

“He’s had a tremendous ripple effect on many students,” McMannon said.

One of those students is St. George junior Ethan Tischler. He said Ely offers a “completely different experience than any other teacher.”

Tischler said he’s looking at going into the medical field after high school and credits Ely’s class for inspiration.

“It’s changed how I’ve viewed the world in more than one way,” Tischler said.

Charlotte senior Maddy Howe said Ely’s class has also helped her think about a future in science.

“I didn’t like science at all until I took this class,” Howe said. “Now I’m thinking pre-med.”

Comments like these make Ely’s job worthwhile, he said. Ely is reticent to talk about the many awards and achievements he’s received in 36 years of teaching, which include the Vermont Teacher of the Year award, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement.

Instead, he prefers to talk about recognition from former students on how he’s helped shape their lives. Awards given to him via student nominations at St. Michael’s, Amherst and Williams colleges mean so much more.

“Very few professions can give you that level of satisfaction of making a difference,” Ely said.

In the past year, Ely has had to deal with health problems that almost caused him to retire in August. He has been dealing with Meniere’s Disease, or vertigo disease, which causes bouts of extreme dizziness and unbalance.

As recently as this summer, Ely was using a wheelchair and cane to get around, but has retrained himself to walk and function, even though the vertigo symptoms still strike without warning. Still, he’s thankful for the mobility and has gained even more respect for people with disabilities.

“Every year, I tell my kids we’re all TABs — temporarily able bodied,” he said, adding the disease has made him miss only one class due to a doctor’s appointment.

And while Ely said he’s not much of a traveler, he’s visited the Galapagos Islands and taken students on biology trips to Costa Rica, where the teens also took part in service projects. He also visited Kenya last year on a biology safari, at the same time meeting and helping local Kenyans in various aid projects.

“Growing up with not a lot, I can appreciate giving back,” Ely said. “I try to instill that in the kids I travel with.”

Ely, who grew up in St. Johnsbury as one of 18 children, attended the University of Vermont in the 1960s before taking his first and only teaching position at CVU. Since becoming the high school’s AP biology teacher, more than 500 of his students have scored a 5 on the AP biology exam — the highest grade possible on the tests.

Ely and his wife Diane, a former kindergarten teacher, have three grown daughters living across the United States and Europe.

Through the years, Ely has seen students grow and priorities change, but he’s happy he’s made a difference in their lives. He intends to keep busy in retirement with possible part-time teaching jobs. He said he’ll miss teaching at CVU every day, but now is the time to step down.

“I can’t imagine a life without teaching, but I can’t imagine a life teaching and not doing a good job,” Ely said.