Jack, Teacher, CT
Jack, High School Teacher, CT
Jack is a teacher at an elite preparatory school in Connecticut. He has also taught in San Antonio, Texas. He was interviewed by Nicole, his Mentor Catalyst and new friend!
Think about a child in your life that you care about...what makes them unique?
I’ve had the pleasure of working at both a prep school in Connecticut as well as an inner-city school in San Antonio for a couple of years. The children that stick out for me is one boy from Connecticut and one girl from San Antonio. The guy from Prep is a kid named Danny, who is from Newtown, CT. He just graduated this year and I taught him American History. Right of the bat, Danny is a social kid. He says he wants to be a teacher, but I’m pretty sure he’ll go into politics or something like that because the kid goes into a room and just owns it. Over the course of the two years that I got to know him, the growth that I saw not only academically but also from a social and maturity standpoint, he just really transformed before my eyes, which was pretty impressive. He’s from Newtown, meaning he grew up during the time of Sandy Hook, and he was very active in sharing his experiences about being in this town, growing up with this tragedy. He’s somebody who although he is 10 years younger than me, he’s had a profound impact on how I view my relationships with my students. He had a high level of maturity for his age and in the long run, I can imagine him making a very large impact on others.
In San Antonio, there was a girl named Mallory, who was just a rock star. Very smart, driven, but had a lot of things that affected her growing up that made her one of the most impressive, strong people. I never really asked any questions, because I didn’t feel like it was my place as her teacher, I didn’t want to blur that line, but I always impressed by her demeanor and something that I kind of saw her really mature into a young woman in a city where not a lot of kids leave. She’s said, you know what I love this town, but I need to leave this town to figure things out in my life.
When you think about them in the future, what do you want for them? What would make it a good life?
First and foremost, I want them to be successful at the university level. You want them to be academically successful. But, part of that skill building is ideally helping them become good people. Somebody who is an activist and an advocate for those people on the fringes, somebody who doesn’t shy away from saying the unpopular thing even though it’s the right thing. For Mallory and for Danny, I hope that they always search for an opportunity to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. I think too often, kids stay in their lane. That idea of “let me see what I’m really capable of and let me push myself outside my comfort zone,” you find out a lot about yourself. I hope that they’re not afraid to fall down, because to get back up and to tell people I can do more.
I want them to be surrounded by people that care about them. They’ve both gone through some struggles and they deserve the best. They know how to treat people, and that’s why they’ve had such an impact on me. Success can be measured in a lot of different ways. I think too often it’s measured in dollars and cents. But I think at the end of the day, I want both of them to realize that if you can make one person’s life a little bit easier, or help someone accomplish one of their goals, that’s going to lead to a successful adult life as well.
I learned this from my dad, who works in wealth management in New York City....you know, it’s Wallstreet, it’s finance, there’s a lot of things people see and think it sounds great. But the best piece of advice that my dad ever gave me when I went to college was to major in something that I enjoy and I’m good at because what when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, it’s not a job--it’s something that you just enjoy doing. There are days when I’m in the classroom and I want to pull my hair out because I just can’t believe a kid did X, Y or Z, but the fact that I get to come back each day and help a kid understand why the Civil War started or teach them how to write a thesis, analyze a source, or talk to them about the soccer game they played in yesterday--that’s what makes a good teacher/student relationship and hopefully that’s the type of relationship these guys and girls will have moving forward.
What do you think the role of schooling should be in achieving that good life?
It can either provide the right type of community for a kid or if the school doesn’t provide the right environment, it can be a real detriment to the development of that child. I’ve only ever taught in private schools, so I can’t speak for public schools, but one of the things we always talk about is that sense of a greater community. When you strive to not only further yourself, but also further your community, you’ll be impressed and surprised by how far you can go.
I think about [my school] and it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. It made me feel protected and loved when I felt vulnerable, and it told me that I was capable of more and that I should strive for me. That’s something I’ll always be thankful for.
What are those personal skills you think are important?
I’ve always taught in Catholic schools, so there’s the Jesuit motto: “Being a Man for Others.” It’s the idea that I’m not only a man for others, but I’m a man for and with others. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to seek out chances to serve those who have the least. The least doesn’t necessarily have to be financial, but those who are the least loved, those who have the least food, or whatever it might be to help build people up. I’m a firm believer in whatever you do for others comes back to you tenfold. If you’re constantly going out there and finding opportunities to build up communities and build up other people, people will remember what you do for them. There’s a quote, I don’t remember if exactly, but it’s something like, “You always forget what people say to you, but you’ll never forget the way people make you feel.” That’s the whole goal: if I can, or my kids can, spread good feelings around, you develop and environment that’s more conducive to community and to learning. There’s that shared experience that when my students step into my classroom, because of the environment we created, that I have their back 100%.
What has been an empowering educational experience for you?
I always thought that becoming a teacher was something that I would do later on in life. I would go off and do the business thing, and be a history teacher later on. As I went through schooling, it became more and more apparent that I was delaying the inevitable. I’m going to be a teacher, why do I have to wait till I’m 50, why not do it when I’m 22. I talk about why I’m a history teacher a lot, and the people who have always had a tremendous impact on me were my dad and my mom. I remember my very first day in graduate school at Notre Dame, and we were all sitting in this room. Our professor comes down and he’s giving this lecture, and everyone is really nervous, no one knows what to expect. He says, “take out a piece of paper and write down the 5 best teachers you’ve ever had.” So I grab a notebook and scribble down: “Ms. Ettinger from 1st grade, Mr. Ward from middle school, Father Berry from high school, a professor from Providence, etc.” We all hand in our papers, there’s about ninety of us in the class, he’s up there, looking really serious, and he reads through them all. He puts all the papers up and tears them all in half and there’s this huge gasp in the room and I’m like, how dare you tear up Ms. Ettinger’s name, she’s a nice lady. And he said, “not one of you put down your parents.” And I remember thinking to myself, wow there’s a hundred people in this room, I think we’re pretty smart, but not one of us thought about our mom and dad as a teacher. Then he said, “parents are the primary educators of children.”
That has always stuck with me, five years later, that I’ll never forget. It’s one of those educational moments that whenever I’m in my classroom, I think to myself how my dad taught how to treat people, how my mom taught me how to value people. It’s not just my parents, it’s how my family, in general, treat each other. I think that’s what makes someone a lifelong learner, willing to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, that they’ve been taught that from an early age. I always tell my kids, that at a school that costs $20,000 a year, the greatest thing you can do is value the investment someone made in you.