Seth Berg

by Emily Dresslar
Midway through a morning coffee break at Telluride’s Steaming Bean, Bob Dylan breaks into the conversation. It’s the cell ringtone of Telluride Middle/High School teacher and district assessment coordinator Seth Berg. A fitting sound, as Berg, who stands out as an exuberant dresser, has admittedly entered a “cowboy phase.” His “dress-up Friday” look is less Ralph Lauren button-down ranchwear and more Dylan’s suit and ten-gallon-hat style. “Hi, Jake,” he answers. “Yeah, you write it as sine over cosine…” he explains patiently before launching into a more sophisticated math-speak that rolls past the ears like an exotic language.

Berg is Colorado’s 2007 Teacher of the Year. And when he’s not found in front of a Telluride Middle/High School math classroom or tucked away in his small, paper-stacked office, his students know how to reach him. A teacher whose personal number has been programmed into his students’ phones is rare. But Berg didn’t set out to be the Teacher of the Year, let alone a teacher. “Teaching found me,” he says. And skiing, naturally, was the eventual catalyst.

Berg’s earliest school years were spent as a student at the American International School in New Delhi, India, with high school following in the less exotic suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. He then attended Oberlin College, graduated with a degree in science and took a teaching job at the Burke Mountain Academy, a private school for ski racers in Vermont. “Each year, we would take the kids from Vermont out to ski in Colorado before the snow would start to fall in New England,” he says. “I think all ski racers come through Telluride eventually.”

The threads leading Berg to Telluride soon connected—a link through a former student, a Vermont colleague who coached skiing in Telluride, and a fateful first morning in town where breakfast was served with a blast of Bob Dylan on the radio. “That just warmed my heart,” Berg says. He secured a teaching job with the Telluride R-1 School District and eventually received a master’s degree in education from Goddard College.

Nearly 18 years later, Berg traveled from Telluride to Denver as one of the final four nominees for Teacher of the Year. “I didn’t think my parents should fly in, because I thought, really, I only have a 25 percent chance of having my name called,” he says. But his parents took those odds, and Berg, surrounded by family, co-workers and former students, heard his name announced at the awards banquet. Afterward, hundreds of well-wishing emails poured in from colleagues and former students, along with a few job offers from faraway places such as Rome and Singapore.

Telluride’s schools are having a good year. Berg’s big win was one of a string of honors that included Mary Rubadeau (Colorado Superintendent of the Year) and Mike Hughes (Athletic Director of the Year). Most recently, Telluride High School received a silver-medal designation in a national poll.

THS was one of only 10 Colorado schools to receive a gold or silver designation in U.S. News & World Report’s very first ranking of the nation’s high schools released in mid-February. It was the lone high school on the Western Slope to receive a mention in the national poll; other named Colorado high schools were located in Colorado Springs, the Denver area and Boulder County.

What a difference a couple of decades makes. “When I first came here 18 years ago, less than half of the graduating class went on to college,” Berg says. “The students here were pretty resistant to the college prep approach.” Today, that percentage reaches between 90 and 95 annually, Berg estimates.

Though he has surely played a role in that success, Berg’s influence in the Telluride community extends beyond the school district. He sits on the board of directors for the Pinhead Institute, a nonprofit devoted to science literacy, and One to One, a studentmentoring program. He recently helped build a new program—the Quest Scholarship—in conjunction with the Telluride Foundation. The organization identifies one local student each year to receive a full four-year scholarship for college tuition. “We especially want to target students who are brand new to college within their families,” he says. “We’d eventually like to target fifth and sixth graders and get them thinking about college early.”

Berg is in step with Telluride’s outdoor culture: a skier in the winter who waits for perfect powder days, and a backpacker in the summer who loves to explore the region’s narrow red-rock canyons. But diverging from the well-worn outdoor enthusiast path, he is also a gatherer of the unusual and ephemeral. Among his collection is a scrapbook of used plastic bags that once contained ice. He saves stickers from the front of CD covers that read “Includes the Hit ______” and collects salt from around the world. He’s got Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and unusual Afghani war rugs with bombs and tanks woven into the designs.

Berg is also a dogged devotee of motion pictures. “I love the feeling when you’ve just seen a film and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, I forgot that movies could be that powerful,’” he says. With a group of friends in Austin, Texas, Berg has a small film company, Red Gun Productions, which produces exactly one short a year. Naturally, he’s a mainstay at Telluride’s two premiere film festivals, serving as a ringmaster who introduces features at Mountainfilm and Telluride Film Festival.

Look for Berg around town on any old Friday—he’ll be the one in a coat and tie. “It started in college, when it was the David Bowie style. That was when you bought thrift-store clothes, ripped them up and got the look. Now, I get my clothes at Nordstroms,” he says with a big laugh.