How Neuqua Valley driver's ed teacher helps students take 'huge step toward adulthood'
Wayne Hartmann was doing his student-teaching at a tiny school in Minnesota with a graduating class of 15 when his supervisor advised him to jump at the chance if he ever was offered the option to teach driver's ed.
Soon, he was. He got his start as an in-car teacher in the late 1990s at Alden-Conger School in Alden, Minnesota, population roughly 620.
Not long after that, Hartmann was home in the Kane County area, when he was offered a bigger chance: the same gig as a driver's ed teacher, but this time at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, population 129,000.
Hartmann has been there now for 21 years, after some 2 a.m. resume editing and what he calls a "complete chance meeting" with the Neuqua principal at a career fair landed him the job.
Hartmann's work at Neuqua recently netted him the Teacher of Excellence Award from the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association and the National Road Safety Foundation. Hartmann is one of five educators across the nation to receive the honor this year.
He's one of four full-time and two part-time driver's ed teachers at Neuqua, and he's grateful this summer to be back in the passenger seat (the one with the extra brake in case of perilous student driving) helping kids finish their training before seeking their license.
"There are tense moments at times," he said. "But there is very little a student can do to surprise me."
Hartmann, 45, of Maple Park, said he relishes the opportunity to teach about safety, technology and driving skills, but also about the broader life implications that come with getting behind the wheel.
"It's something that most students are passionate about," Hartmann said. "That driver's license is such a huge step toward adulthood and independence for them, and I enjoy taking part in that."
Hartmann said his first experience with driving came as a small child, when he joined his father as the elder Hartmann trucked grain from the family's farm in Maple Park to a market in Morris. Soon after, he was behind the wheel himself -- of a go-kart when he was about 7, he said.
Driving was always a fun excitement and a natural part of a farming lifestyle that's much different than the upbringing most of his Neuqua students experience.
"I was an observant child when it came to what Dad did at the traffic lights and how he navigated things," said Hartmann, who now lives a mile away from his childhood home and still farms part-time, growing the Illinois staples of corn and soybeans. "I was very interested in driving from a very young age."
But he almost pursued a career teaching English, instead.
Hartmann said he was three-quarters of the way through a bachelor's degree in education when he realized "the PE teachers and health teachers looked like they were having a whole lot more fun." So he changed majors and graduated from Winona State University in Minnesota with enough credits to teach all of the subjects he considered most interesting.
At Neuqua, Hartmann instructs both the classroom and behind-the-wheel portions of driver's ed, focusing on safety and on getting to know his students as they approach a major coming-of-age milestone. He also was recognized with this year's Teacher of Excellence Award, and in 2014 by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, for his use of technology.
"Wayne represents our best, who inspire others to be passionate and effective teachers of this important life skill," Rich Hanson, who heads the award selection committee for the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association, said in a news release. "We are proud to honor him."