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Earth science teacher engages students through world travel

Wende Lestelle spent last summer on Mongolia’s sand dunes. In 2012, she flew to Madagascar.

She’s been aboard a Russian icebreaker ship to Antarctica, studying glaciers and penguins. She’s dug for dinosaur fossils outside Bozeman, Mont., with Jack Horner, the renowned paleontologist and inspiration for the lead character in “Jurassic Park.” She’s walked in the waters of the Amazon River.

But her Spring Valley High School students often don’t believe the science teacher when she recounts her summer treks around the globe with other scientists. She’s done research on all seven continents.

“Yeah, I’m lying. Really?” says 56-year-old Lestelle, who leaves photo albums in the back of her classroom so students can see where the earth sciences have taken her — and can take them.

She’s quick to admit she’s not what most students expect a teacher to be. And her relationship with teaching isn’t one of those love-at-first-sight kind of tales, always wanting to be a teacher from the time she was a young student herself. It’s more like “When Harry Met Sally…”

But she fell in love with teaching and is still with it 31 years later because she gets to impart her love for earth sciences to students.

Students and staff of the school near Buffalo Drive and Flamingo Road have noted her devotion, which has earned Lestelle the honor of being named Clark County Educator of the Month for December. She was chosen from a list of nominees by a panel that includes members of the Clark County School Board, the Public Education Foundation, Teach for America and private school representatives.

The Review-Journal and Sierra Nevada College sponsor the program. All monthly winners will be honored at an end-of-the-school-year banquet, where an Educator of the Year will be named.

Lestelle was a good student herself, skipping sixth grade when her family moved from Santa Monica, Calif., to Las Vegas in 1968. She graduated from Western High School set on being an oceanographer.

She joined the Navy ROTC at the University of Utah, but soon discovered the male-dominated program wasn’t to her liking.

“It didn’t work for me,” she said. “I just bailed and didn’t have Plan B.”

She enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to study biology, focusing on wildlife management. But the professors, mostly men, said there are no jobs for women in biology. So she switched to structural geology and heard the same thing, switching again to earth science and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the field in 1980.

Instead of working for Chevron or other oil and gas companies like many of her peers, Lestelle kept her focus on conservation, ending up at the University of Nevada, Reno studying renewable natural resources for her master’s degree.

But budget cuts forced her to make another switch in study — one day, she walked out of the science building and saw the education school across the way. She walked over and signed up. It was as simple as that.

After graduating, she returned to Las Vegas, teaching for a short time at elementary schools and middle schools, such as Cashman Middle School, where tennis legend Andre Agassi was her student.

“He was never in my class very much because he was always playing tennis,” she said.

She taught at Bonanza High School for 19 years before coming to Spring Valley when it opened in 2004.

Lately, she has found teaching harder despite her experience in and out of the classroom. Grabbing students’ attention with her travels is less effective.

“Less and less, the kids are interested,” said Lestelle, who now competes with the social network universe that students have created on their smartphones and computers. “It’s tougher and tougher every year. We see it in all our subjects. They’re not going to talk to each other pretty soon.”

Lestelle always planned to retire after 35 years in the classroom. But, as that day has neared, she’s moved the mark to 40 years.

“It’s not a money thing. It’s not a maternal thing or anything like that. I still have enough kids interested in the natural world,” said Lestelle on Friday.

Some of her former students come back and visit. They keep in touch and send Christmas cards, she remarked with a smile.

“One of my students is graduating from UNLV right now to attend pharmacy school,” said a proud Lestelle.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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