MILTON — In some ways, Val Crofts is a lot like everyone’s favorite high school social studies teacher.
He’s a self-proclaimed history geek. He’s always telling stories. His classroom features pictures of historically important people and has warplanes hanging from the ceiling.
But Crofts’ former students will tell you he’s one of a kind: a teacher who’s also a friend, coach and source of career inspiration.
He can even inspire you to get a tattoo incorporating the first three words of the U.S. Constitution.
Crofts, who teaches Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. government and politics, U.S. history and U.S. military history at Milton High School, recently was named the state’s recipient of the Outstanding Teacher of American History Award given by the Wisconsin Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
He and teachers from other states were nominated for the national award.
“I was pretty excited,” Crofts, 48, said of winning the award. “I’ve admired the DAR for a long time because of the work they do to promote history education and civic education.”
Crofts calls himself a “history geek,” and his freshman daughter, Grace, laughed before admitting that was true. After all, the family dog, a beagle-dachshund mix, is named Winston Churchill.
Geek or not, Crofts’ history expertise has taken him places.
In 2017, he was appointed by then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to serve on the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, a national committee formed to plan a celebration of the Declaration of Independence’s 250th anniversary.
Crofts also created Discovering Democracy, an upper-level political science course that takes Milton students to Washington, D.C., to conduct research. Hundreds of students have met with Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and House speakers through the program.
High school Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said he wasn’t surprised to hear Crofts had earned the award. He said Crofts has the ability to connect with students and get them excited for college.
“He really allows students to discover democracy,” Bilhorn said. “I think certainly his project has created a culminating experience for the social studies department. … He has created that unique experience for students to transition into what it’s like to be a college student.”
Crofts clearly has been a career-molder for many.
“Mr. Crofts was one of the best teachers I had,” said 2008 graduate Kristopher Strebe, who is studying history and hopes to work in a museum.
“I was always someone very interested in history ... but he kind of pushed me towards thinking about how I can use history as a career and be successful in the rest of my life,” Strebe said.
Danielle Zimmerman got into politics after taking Crofts’ classes. The 2007 Milton graduate currently works as chief of staff for state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, a Republican from Clinton.
Zimmerman said Crofts helped spark her interest in government. She studied art for one semester in college but then switched to history and politics, two subjects she grew to love in high school.
“He’s fun and interactive, and he makes what could be a dull or hot topic more interesting,” she said.
She added: “He is someone you can trust to come to with concerns and will be fair and honest with whatever you’re going through.”
Kerya Jewett, a 2014 graduate, said Crofts’ style is what made his class different.
“He was able to really pull a lot of mature conversation out of high-schoolers and challenge our views,” she said. “Even though him and I are on very opposing sides of the political spectrum, it was just a very respectful environment and sparked my interest in politics.”
Crofts said his teaching style is student-based.
“For me, it’s always been natural. I think you take the curriculum, which to me I’m really passionate about but maybe they’re not, and I think the conversational style of it brings it to them easier,” he said.
He tries to tell human stories instead of focusing on dates and names.
“I’ve always been interested in the stories of people in history, and I try to bring that passion to the kids,” Crofts said. “From Lincoln to Churchill to Washington to the Declaration of Independence, I feel like I would be giving a disservice to the people of history if I didn’t make that education entertaining.”
One student who felt that student-teacher connection deeply is Ben Dybas.
Melissa Dybas and her son consider Crofts part of their family, where he is known as “Papa Val.”
“He was instrumental in keeping Ben engaged in school, engaged in learning and getting him interested in going to college,” Melissa said. “I don’t think that (college) would have happened if it weren’t for Mr. Crofts.”
When Melissa was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Crofts was the first person the family called to help break the news to Ben.
“That’s so hard to find a teacher who actually cares, but he really made Ben feel noticed, appreciated and valued, and I can’t thank him enough,” Melissa said.
Ben has an arm tattoo that reads “We The People” to thank and honor Crofts.
“Every day when you have a class with him, the best part of every day is showing up and seeing him,” Ben said. “If you have a class with him, you’re blessed to be able to spend 45 minutes with him.”
Although Ben graduated last year, Crofts continues to have an impact in his life.
“He’s just the best guy. He’s an awesome dude. He’s hilarious, and I consider him one of my best friends now that I graduated. He treats students like real adults,” Ben said.
“He deserves all the awards in the world.”