Griffith, Highland, Munster and Lake Central students go back to school this week, as do scores of other teachers and administrators who are preparing for the opening of their schools the following week. As a former teacher, I recall facing the start of another school year with as much trepidation as students felt.
What would be the makeup of the class? Would I get lucky and have one of those classes that every teacher dreams of?
In teacher training, colleges used to spend a good deal of time on the concept of setting the tone, laying out the ground rules and putting a disciplinary policy in place right away. I knew the first time a classroom crisis arose that I should have paid much closer attention to that lesson, but I managed to find a style that worked for me and stick with it.
Years later, I see former students who express fond memories of my classroom. I was probably much too easy on them, but we had a tacit agreement - you play by the rules and I will do my best to make this lesson go smoothly.
Most of time I dreamed of that classroom where the conversation was not one-way and students were really interested in American history circa The Great Depression and World War II.
Usually, we didn’t get much farther than that. It would be easy for me to blame the students for taking me off course, but it was really my fault. I enjoyed the moments when they were really into the lesson and I was unwilling to plow ahead for the sake of staying within the syllabus.
During my teacher training days I had the pleasure of observing three classrooms, each with their own identity.
The first belonged to Joe Craig of Hammond High School’s Project STAY, the brainchild of Craig and a dedicated group of administrators who wanted to tackle the epidemic of dropouts.
The solution was a program that would teach students on their terms. They would be held responsible for the outcomes, but the confines of the classroom were softened by a setting that was much more accommodating, complete with sofas, lounge chairs and space to spread out and work at your own pace. It was an eye-opening experience that I will always remember.
Craig had taken the song "We Didn’t Start the Fire" by Billy Joel and turned it into a learning experience. The students were captivated by the idea that they could take the time period to really delve into it. There was so much more to that classroom that accommodated all kinds of learners, from the silent readers to those who learned best by talking things out.
From there I moved on to the tutelage of Chuck Pollen and Tom Clark at Lake Central High School, where I discovered that history can be taught in a variety of ways, from the humor and wit of Pollen to the intensity and drive of Clark.
I hope that today's young teachers are lucky enough to have mentors that pull them aside and let them know that they can ask for help, because I certainly did.
By the way, if you are in Mr. Clark’s class this year, be sure to congratulate him on being awarded the American Legion National Education Award that will be presented in Houston, Texas on Aug. 24. It couldn’t go to more deserving teacher and mentor.