Rustin Buck: 2013 Teacher of Excellence Award Winner

Rustin Buck Enlarge image (© Courtesy Rustin Buck) Imagine a Texas-sized competition in which hundreds of German students in grades 8 through 12 go head-to-head in 41 contests, including written and oral tests, declamation, drama, art, and music. From the best photo essay, to the best puppet show, to the best performer on a written test, it’s like an American county fair with a decidedly German twist.

This is Houstonfest. In 2013 the event, traditionally held on the first Saturday of February, had 712 contestants from 25 schools. But the Fest, founded in 1980, has just one director: Rustin Buck.

Mr. Buck—or ‘Herr Buck’ as students at Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas know him—has been the driving force behind Houstonfest since he took over the reigns in fall 2007. But the festival, massive as it is, is but one of Herr Buck’s many methods of engaging students with German in greater Houston. To hear it from parents, students and administrators, the 2000 winner of the Texas German Teacher of the Year award is a veritable force of nature—a teacher with such a contagious enthusiasm for German language and culture, none who come into contact with it can resist.

Total Immersion Classroom

Students in Rustin Buck’s classes enjoy, first of all, a solid grounding in the fundamentals of reading, writing, understanding and speaking German. Highly adept at the Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) method of language instruction, Buck uses this strategy to keep his classes in German 90 percent of the time. “Every time that I have the pleasure of going into Rustin’s classroom, I am greeted with a total immersion atmosphere of lively conversation where both students and teacher are using the target language almost exclusively,” says Sandy Harvey, World Language Coordinator of the Fort Bend ISD.

Buck’s methods work, as evidenced by the huge popularity of his classes, as well as the high performance of his students in competitions such as the Texas State German Contest (Houstonfest is one of three regional preliminary contests that culminate at ‘State’) and evaluations such as the AATG National German Exam.

“I try to offer the best instruction that I can, so that students will feel that they’re achieving something in my program, while also offering a broad range of German-related extracurricular activities, so that students will have fun in my program, bond with each other, and want to stay in German through level IV,” he says. Over his two decades as a German teacher, Buck has learned it’s these “extras,” as he calls them, that keep his program well subscribed and thriving.

The Importance of Adding “Extras”

“This may be scandalous to admit, but I often err on the side of ‘extras’ over lesson preparation, because I’m convinced that the main reason students and parents are attracted to my German program in the first place and then stay in it once they’ve started is all the fun things we do together: scavenger hunts, the Spaghetti-Eis socials, the cookie- and pretzel-baking sessions, the Gummi Bear Olympics, the weekly folk dance practices, the trips to the symphony and the opera, the frenzied preparation of skits and plays and gingerbread houses and chorus performances for German contest, and the amazing experiences of a GAPP exchange are what get the kids hooked and keep them coming back for more. Word gets around about these things,” he says.

Indeed it does. The sheer energy, dedication and competence Mr. Buck exhibits have made him a leader in the foreign language teaching community, in greater Houston and beyond. As past president of the Houston AATG chapter, active member of the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association, and frequent lector in the German church services at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, Mr. Buck “not only is an exceptional teacher of the German language but also a true ambassador of German culture,” according to the German General Consulate in Houston.

A German Kingdom

Mr. Buck’s colleagues echo this sentiment. Fellow German teacher Denise Tanner attests to the uncanny multiplier effect Mr. Buck has had in launching and sustaining programs other than his own, ensuring the success of German education in Texas.

As a new teacher just out of college, starting a German program at a brand new school in Rustin Buck’s district, Tanner recalls how his generous spirit and commitment to helping others got her and her program off the ground. “Had it not been for Rustin, I would have been a 23 year old island of inexperience in a sea of German-program-killing sharks,” says Tanner. “I know how to run a successful German kingdom today, because Rustin helped me get started and offered a helping hand many times along the way.”

Please Mind the GAPP

Among his many accomplishments as a teacher of German, Rustin Buck considers his greatest to be his founding of a GAPP exchange, starting in 1998 with a partner school in Bremen, and continuing, after two wonderful exchanges there, with the Lessing-Gymnasium in Cologne.

“I’ve sponsored eight exchanges so far and am planning the ninth right now,” he says. “By next summer, I will have accompanied 121 students to Germany and facilitated the hosting of 144 German students in Texas.”

But Mr. Buck knows that these numbers cannot tell the whole story.

“The exchange has touched not just those 265 lives, though; its ripple-effect reaches their families and friends, the students at both schools who are not directly participating in the exchange, and the teachers at both schools.  And it has enriched my own life immeasurably as I have formed special bonds with my German and Texan colleagues who are involved in the exchange and with the students who have participated over the years.”

These special bonds, quite likely, are the greatest accomplishment of all.