Learning from the Best Teachers

For me personally, one of the greatest joys of having been a teacher for many years is the continuing relationships I have with former students. Discovering how they are making their way in the world and getting to know them as adults and peers is a gift. It also pleases me enormously that so many of my former students have chosen to teach. Some have left the classroom, but others are still phenomenally engaged.

Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom. I recently got to talk to one of those teachers, my student almost twenty-five years ago, and his remarks inspired confidence in me once again. So I’d like to share some of them here.

Marc Nelson teaches art to 4th through 8th graders in Kewanee, Illinois, a district where 80% of students receive free lunch. His lovely wife, Jill Bartelt, teaches reading and math there. I remember his phenomenal artwork and his passion for literature in high school, including his I-Search paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like me, Marc was inspired to become a teacher when a fourth-grade teacher invited him to teach his sister’s first grade class about his passion for Knights. Just as I fell in love with teaching as a sixth-grader when I read to my first-grade teacher’s children, Marc, too, was captivated by teaching. He initially thought he would teach history at the college level, but his love for literature and an amazing Shakespeare professor at Augustana inspired him to unite his passions through his art.

Because I follow Marc on Facebook, I have seen first-hand the way he incorporates other fields in his classroom. His kids don’t get to museums and art galleries, and they live in a more rural environment, but Marc introduces them to art and artists they would otherwise never meet. He involves them in projects that extend well beyond the classroom.

I asked what has been most satisfying about teaching for him. Marc spoke of a great administration and the amount of freedom and support they offer him. Every year he gets to try new projects and align classroom work with content area teachers. For example, when social studies classes are exploring the Great Depression, that becomes the focus in his art class. He says, “There are seemingly endless opportunities and ways to teach certain things.” He used available stop-motion equipment so his 7th and 8th graders could create a film together based on a true incident. His students often brainstorm a list of subjects they’re interested in and try to marry two of them. They’ve combined Covid and WW II, and the Ukraine in general and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe with mass graves that weren’t found until the 1990s. That’s the crux of why he loves this job so much – “It never gets old.”

When I asked about frustrations, he acknowledged a real drop in base knowledge of the average student and in maturity levels. Since the pandemic, behavior and attendance are bigger issues. Marc claims he’s pretty easy-going, so sometimes students test his limits. Yet Marc retains remarkable enthusiasm.

Marc’s experience in Americorps took him to numerous public schools where he saw vitality and energy. He chose to teach public school instead of college and likes that middle school and high school students aren’t yet fully formed. He found subbing at the local junior college art class quiet and less dynamic. The joy of discovery that his younger students find delights and surprises him. He engages them in community projects. “The work goes beyond the walls of the school, and the kids get so excited!”

Marc has avoided some of the parent interactions and interference that have been the bane of existence for other teachers. In addition to his administrative support, he tries to anticipate parent issues and come up with appropriate responses. He has had parents question some of his projects, but thoughtful discussion resolved those issues.

I admire Marc’s use of his art outside the classroom as well. He has mounted shows of his drawings of oppressed people in Syria, Israel, and Gaza. His students see him walk his talk about going out into the world, and that must inspire them. You can explore his work at www.marcnelsonart.com.

I also asked about advice for new teachers. Marc said, “Invest yourself in whatever you’re teaching, find a way that it’s fascinating to you which will help you ‘deliver’ it effectively.” He also urges parents to use their time with their kids to foster interests and raise a consummate, lifelong learner. They should ask their students about their passions and learning, build on that, read them books and take them places, and support the current instruction at home. He urges the public: “Do not give lip service to the importance of children but then hamstring teachers. Back up that importance with support for teachers and the schools. Attend events, go to fundraisers.” Too many people seem to think that public school teachers are just servants who are not worthy of respect.

Marc respects his students: “They’re so much more capable of remarkable things than I gave them credit for before I knew them.”  He likes responding to what’s happening with artists and what’s happening in the world. He gets them to engage with the times we’re living in and tells them, “When you walk through this door, you’re an artist and this is your studio.”

In a perfect world, Marc he would love to have more world-based projects – for all classes. He agrees that better pay and more respect for teachers are overdue. The workload remains arduous, but Marc avoids burnout by doing what he’s passionate about. He appreciates the freedom not to be bogged down testing and grading tests, and he values the support he gets (and gives).

Clearly there aren’t enough Marc Nelsons to go around – don’t we wish we could clone teachers like him? But he offers clear guidelines on how we all can help other teachers be their best selves:

  • Good teachers who are meeting standards need the freedom to design how they get there.
  • Students deserve projects and experiences that take them beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Teachers need to support and encourage each other. Administrators, parents, and community members need to support good teachers.
  • When teachers can find a point of passion in their subject, they transmit that passion. The curriculum needs to be flexible enough to let them find those passions.

These are not “pie-in-the-sky” goals. They are achievable and worthwhile. Aren’t our kids worth it?

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