Alumni Highlight: Gary Koppelman - A COE Alumni and Inductee in the National Teachers Hall of Fame

By Rachel Renou, COE Grad Assistant | Published March 5, 2021

A photo of Gary Koppelman posing with a life-size model of a human skeleton which is earing a hat and a T-shirt that reads, "I passed the MEAP!"
Gary Koppelman
A photo of Gary Koppelman posing with a life-size model of a human skeleton which is earing a hat and a T-shirt that reads, "I passed the MEAP!"

Gary Koppelman

YPSILANTI - Imagine you just graduated from college and you start your first full time job as a teacher. You’re excited and ready to make a difference in the lives of your students. You have passions and ideas you want to bring to life. What would you be able to accomplish between now and when you retire?

For Gary Koppelman, a two time EMU COE alumni, he carried those first day aspirations with him all 46 years. From 1973 to 2019 he brought his ideas to life and eventually retired with a legacy of inspiring young minds in the world of science.

Koppelman recognized his love for teaching starting in high school. As a boy living on a 40 acre farm from Ottawa Lake, MI he participated in many 4-H club activities and often visited his mother’s 3rd grade classroom where she taught. One of his teachers, also an EMU graduate, noticed his natural leadership ability and encouraged Koppelman to attend Eastern Michigan University’s College of Education. 

It wasn’t long into his Elementary Education courses that a professor taught Koppelman a valuable lesson that he would carry with him for the next 46 years. After struggling in a reading class his teacher recognized something about him. She approached Koppelman to let him know she suspected he had a stuttering issue from possible dyslexia and an auditory discrimination problem. The part that would stick with Koppelman was that despite this bump in the road, she was not doubtful of his ability. Instead, she told him “You need to stop being afraid to make a mistake… You need to do it your way and you will find you will do it correctly.”

Koppelman applied this philosophy as he began his teaching career. Determined to help students rid themselves of the fear of making mistakes, he looked for ways to encourage different types of learning unique to each student. With this type of teaching, he was confident that all things are possible for himself and his future students.

In 1973 Koppelman started his teaching career with the 6th grade at Deerfield Public School. Then, after receiving his masters in Elementary Education Koppelman started at Blissfield Community Schools teaching 5th grade in 1976.  He also taught at New Life Christian School for several years before returning to Blissfield Community School in 1991 until retirement in 2019. 

At Blissfield, Koppelman saw the potential in an enclosed courtyard to be transformed into a space that inspired learning and science discovery. In 1999 his vision was finally carried out when the project received the Blissfield Foundation for Education Excellence Grant of $125,000 thanks to community members, local organizations, and his grant writing.

A photo of the Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (BELL).
Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (BELL)
A photo of the Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (BELL).

Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (BELL)

Koppelman designed and supervised the Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (BELL) for the rest of his career while also teaching. The lab is a life science center which bridges the gap to physical and earth sciences. In the BELL, students have a hands-on, minds-on experience that stimulates their learning and broaders their perspectives. They learn to love to discover new ideas and appreciate the amazing aspects of life.

Thanks to the BELL and Koppelman’s teaching, many students of Blissfield elementary have gone on to pursue science related careers. Some include marine biologists, a leading animal geneticist, and a space engineer working on the Mars project.  It means so much to Koppelman to see how he can help students discover their passions even at a young age.

Not only are his student’s accomplishments a good representation of his tremendous teaching, but also his many awards received throughout the years. Some of Koppelman’s awards include the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (2016), Top 50 Global Teaching Prize Finalist (2015), Education Excellence Award - Michigan Association of School Boards (2014), NSTA Shell Science Teaching Award (2013) which led to his name on a NASCAR car, the Golden Apple Teacher Award from Channel 24 TV Toledo, OH (2004), and he was the second teacher ever from Michigan to be inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame (2014) where he met President Obama.

When asked how he felt about being inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame Koppelman said…

“I was stunned with such an honor being Michigan’s second inductee and being recognized for my passion to touch the students’ learning pallet and see the spark in their eye. I am blown away as I look at the amazing teachers across our nation who are recognized for their outstanding work. When I look across the hall or throughout our school and recognize the highly qualified teachers I work with, doing amazing things with their students far beyond what I felt I was doing, it’s humbling. These teachers need to be recognized as well. It causes me to wonder what would happen if all teachers received the funds to see their teaching dream come to pass.”

Even at the end of a successful career, Koppelman continues to teach others while in retirement. Today, Koppelman spends his time training the new BELL supervisor and speaking at teaching conventions. Some examples of where Koppelman has presented are The Governor’s Talent and Education Summit, Michigan Science Teachers State Conventions, and NSTA National Conventions in Boston, Los Angeles, and Nashville. He also sits on various school boards, curriculum committees, and holds other leadership positions.

That first day of teaching excitement stayed with Koppelman all 46 years. As a result, he was able to accomplish many great things for his students and community. He hopes others will live out their dreams as well. Koppelman stopped being afraid to make mistakes and by doing so he took his and his students learning to the next level. His message to teachers and students is to “do it your way with the encouragement of others. Never, never give up!” 

About The College of Education at Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, The College of Education (COE) at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) continues to be one of the largest producers of educational personnel in the nation. The COE includes a comprehensive variety of programs at the bachelor, master and doctoral program level. Non-degree and certifications are also offered through the COE as well. The COE includes departments for teacher education, special education, and leadership & counseling. All of the professional education programs offered by EMU’s COE are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and are also approved by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). The graduates the EMU produces are highly desired in the field, due to the strong reputation the COE has earned throughout their many established years. The COE has been recognized for its strong success rate by U.S. News and World Report’s: America’s Best Colleges.