Tom Traeger, a La Cañada High School geology and earth-science teacher, often gets asked by his students why he doesn’t move next door to work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. What the teens don’t realize is that they are the answer to that question.
“I say, ‘I do what I do because I usually get a few of the students I work with each year that go on to work in the field of studies I teach them,’” said Traeger, who has taught at LCHS for 11 years.
“I often wonder what if I had this opportunity when I was in high school, but…I didn’t have teachers that motivated me to reach my potential and I vowed I was going to be the teacher I never had,” Traeger said.
He tried to boost his ability to be that teacher last year by submitting a project proposal to the HP EdTech Innovators Award program, which annually awards $40,000 grants to 10 winners. Traeger wasn’t one of the 10 chosen for the grant, but he did win the program’s Crowdsourcing Award for acquiring the most votes.
The entire La Cañada Unified School District knows Traeger from the two or three astronomy nights or Star Parties he hosts a year at district elementary schools. He also leads the high school’s trips to the Yosemite Institute each year, speaks at LCHS’ Every 15 Minutes program, which is designed to discourage teenagers from driving under the influence, and was named the district’s Teacher of the Year two years ago.
“The genuineness of Tom Traeger is everywhere and the kids get it,” said Patty Compeau, a fellow science teacher at LCHS. “His classroom-management style is high-tech and genuine.”
Traeger, who studied physical geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, planned on becoming a pilot until his senior year of college, when he enrolled in a pre-professional teaching program at UCSB.
It quickly became clear he had a passion for teaching so he began pursuing a teaching career after graduating in 2001. He stumbled upon an open position at LCHS while surfing for jobs online.
Traeger applied and was interviewed by Lindi Dreibelbis Arthur, La Cañada High’s assistant principal at the time and the district’s current director of assessment, research and consolidated programs, who saw something in him.
“I saw enthusiasm in what he teaches and also the students he wants to impact,” Arthur said. “I am just so pleased he’s been a gold star among many good hires. He really is an exceptional teacher.”
Traeger has focused on teaching lessons through a variety of mediums — lectures, videos, short trips to JPL and more.
Computers are the main method of instruction Traeger uses in the classroom, which can be a challenge when the average computer at LCHS is six years old and in far from good condition. The district has been unable to upgrade its computers due to repeated cuts in state funding over the years, he said.
“We are seeing [those cuts] in our technology,” Traeger said. “I don’t see any public funding coming in from the state on the horizon.”
That’s the reason why Traeger applied for the HP EdTech Innovators Award. If he had won the $40,000 grant, he was going to use the money to bring HP tablet computers into the classroom to enhance his lessons. He was disappointed he didn’t win the $40,000 grant, but he’s not done searching for other grant opportunities.
“I wanted to use computers and technology to further the way I envision my classroom running. I can’t see my classroom running without computers,” he said.
“What keeps me coming back is I love teaching kids and seeing that light of understanding go on,” Traeger said. “I love the content. I get fired up about being able to explain why these things, that the kids see everyday, happen.”