Watt named top Petaluma teacher

For Petaluma teacher Mike Watt, the coronavirus shutdown means one thing - more time for volunteer work.

Watt, 62, plans on working at Committee on the Shelterless while his middle school classes at Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley are on spring break. Besides educating students at school, Watt also works with kids through Mentor Me, and he is a founder of LumaCon, the Petaluma Library’s celebration of comics and reading, among other volunteer jobs.

“It’s hard to keep track of all that I do,” said Watt, who moved to California from Michigan in the 1970s. “It’s really fun.”

For his work with Petaluma children, Watt was honored with the Excellence in Education award from the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence.

But Watt does more than volunteer with youth. He has served nearly every major Petaluma nonprofit.

He has delivered Meals on Wheels for 15 years, and has worked with Rebuilding Together Petaluma on house projects for 12 years. He has volunteered with Mentor Me for a decade and served on their board for the past two years.

He has also coached basketball through the Boys and Girls Club, served Thanksgiving dinners at COTS, worked at the Petaluma Animal Shelter and helped the Friends of the Petaluma River with river clean ups and putting on Rivertown Revival.

In a nomination form, Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, said Watt was deserving of the Excellence in Education award because he “gives his students an opportunity to explore their creativity, and outside of the school walls (he) gives so much of his time to the youth of Petaluma.”

Not surprisingly, it was a volunteer gig at his daughter’s school - he has two daughters, ages 18 and 32 - that instilled in him a passion for teaching.

“It was seeing those aha moments with the kids,” he said. “Seeing them take on a challenge and succeed. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Watt worked for a plastic company at the time, and went back to school - Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University - to earn a teaching degree. He launched his second career 15 years ago, first teaching in Rohnert Park, then Crossroads alternative school in Petaluma. He has taught middle school at Cherry Valley for the past two years.

One of his favorite volunteer assignments is putting on the LumaCon festival each year. The event brings out the best in students’ creativity, he said.

“We get to see these student artists shine,” he said. “They get to let their freak flag fly.”

When he’s not teaching or volunteering, Watt said he likes to read, camp and hike. He also creates yard art from recycled materials - he’s currently working on a windmill made partly out of an old toilet seat. A former stand-up comedian, he enjoys story telling, and has participated in the West Side Stories competition.

For the next two weeks, Watt and other teachers in Petaluma and across the state, are going to be adapting their lesson plans in preparation for remote learning, the new reality that schools face during the coronavirus crisis.

Because of the lockdown, the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence ceremony scheduled for April 2 has been postponed, with no makeup date scheduled.

Watt said he doesn’t do it for the recognition, but he was surprised to get the news he was selected as Petaluma’s top educator.

“I had no idea,” he said. “I’ve worked with Elece (Hempel) for a long time, and she said she’s never seen me speechless. I’m usually pretty chatty.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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