Muirlands students benefit from teacher’s sense of wonder

By Kathy Day

After 26 years as a teacher, Mark Heinze says he loves that he’s still full of wonder.

“I’m still interested in the littlest things around me. … I like to share my wonder,” the Muirlands Middle School world history teacher said in a Sept. 11 interview.

And his sharing isn’t contained to the school year. As soon as classes finish in the spring, he dons his beach gear and takes to the waves as an instructor with the Menhune Surf Camp.

Heinze, a California native, moved to Santa Barbara when he was in fifth grade.

“That’s when I realized natural beauty,” he said, remembering the surf, beaches and blue skies. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

He liked the area so much that he stayed for college, graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in history and political science. But because UCSB didn’t allow students to complete their master’s in the same subject as their undergrad degree, he headed south to San Diego State, with becoming a lawyer as part of his plan.

But that career path shifted when he was helping a girlfriend with a research project on international student test scores. As he gathered data with her, he said, he began to realize something about himself.

“I was very patriotic,” he said. “I figured I could help my country better by helping the next generation rather than by prosecuting criminals.”

So he switched directions and got his credential, landing his first job at mid-year when a teacher in a class for gifted children quit, just as he finished school.

“The parents were furious,” he said. “It was trial by fire, but at the end of the year, they petitioned to keep me.”

The end of the year also meant no paychecks until fall, so he answered a job posting at the Peninsula YMCA for a surf instructor. Armed with a school bus driver’s license and a lifetime of surfing experience, he landed the job and loved it.

Each summer for 16 years he returned to the Y program, occasionally running into former students who told him,“You were our babysitter and our savior.”

For the last eight years, he’s taught at Hike, Bike, Kayak’s Menehune Surf Camps at La Jolla Shores. Through the years his students have included his son Greg, now 22, and daughter, Kristin, now 20.

Since that first year in the classroom, Heinze has also taught fifth, sixth and seventh grades — always in GATE (Gifted and Talented Students) classes. He’s been at Muirlands for about 12 years, where this year he’s teaching sixth and seventh grade world history, and also has taught in Clairemont and Del Cerro.

“I started teaching early and so I still have a lot of years in me,” he noted.

He has received numerous honors, including San Diego City Schools Mid-Level Teacher of the Year (1996-97), which led to a County Teacher of the Year title. In 1998, he was one of the state’s top 10 teachers and a Wal-Mart Teacher of the year. In 2000, he was runner-up in the


Best of La Jolla category for Mid-Level Teacher.

He also has had the reward of former students telling him he made a difference in their lives.

Even with all his recognition, Heinze says, “The only thing that matters is the next day’s lessons.” He works very hard to create lessons that are “new and fresh,” he said. While many teachers save files and plans from year to year so they can reuse lessons, Heinze said he starts over each year because “the students change; things change.”

That makes for some long days. He arrives at Muirlands each day about 6:30 a.m. to get ready for the students who show up at 7:30. “I use that time to make sure I’m ready to go,” he said.

And during lunch, he gets a sort of a respite from the 12- and 13-year-olds, although often he’s revising a lesson “you thought was perfect, altering it for a later class.”

After school there often are meetings with parents and staff before he heads home at 4 p.m. (Oh and meetings with the Muirlands surf team that he advises add to his busy days, too.)

When he gets home Heinze starts all over again, planning for another day. In his spare time, he enjoys tropical gardening and raises rare palms, cycads and plumerias at his Clairemont home.

Heinze’s sense of wonder reaches around the world. A fellow of Atlantik-Brucke (Atlantic Bridge), a nonprofit which promotes cultural understanding, he spent time in Germany funded by the organization. He also traveled Japan as a chaperone for a group of students whose parents were Kyocera employees.

“Seeing how American kids and I benefitted so much from our brief trip, I sort of reversed it and hosted two Japanese kids in our home. Later, we hosted a series of European students,” he said via e-mail. “My own kids learned to value and have tolerance for different customs and cultures.”

His own respect for tolerance has been demonstrated through work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has his name on a “Wall of Tolerance” in

Montgomery, Ala.

But perhaps most telling is a description he gave of the kind of teacher he aspires to be: “To know that a seventh-grade teacher of mine was highly respected by his peers and would give rather intellectual talks to the faculty and yet would spend lunches playing ball or even marbles in the dust with the students — that is the kind of teacher I want to be, one who is on the cutting edge of innovation and teaching in the classroom, but also connected to the students at their level.”