Meet a Teacher
Jeff Reeths is a fourth grade teacher at North Muskegon Elementary School in Muskegon, Michigan. He has been an elementary school teacher for six years. Reeths says that one reason he decided to teach school was because of his family. His mother was an elementary school teacher for forty-two years, and his four siblings are all teachers. However, the biggest reason he chose a teaching career was because of how much he enjoyed being around children.
Before I became a teacher, I worked in broadcasting and had a background in drama and theater. I loved teaching theater classes to children during the summer and on weekends. They energized me, and I found that they taught me as much as I taught them. I also discovered that children have so much enthusiasm and imagination—two qualities that are often lacking in adults. Since I enjoyed working with them so much, I decided to do it for a living. I’ve never been sorry.
What Makes a Good Teacher
Reeths says there was a time when he thought the most important quality for teachers was complete mastery of the subjects they taught. He now realizes that other qualities are more important.
I’ve learned that what really matters are the human qualities—things like a passion for teaching, a sense of humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves. Laughing at myself definitely came in handy during my first year of teaching. I took my students on a nature hike, and I made the mistake of giving the compass to a nine-year-old. About 45 minutes later, when we were still wandering around the sand dunes without any idea of where we were, I finally took control of the compass. We started back, and were met by a search party of parents and teachers. For three weeks after that, people left maps to the staff lounge on my door, parents brought me Cub Scout books so I could learn basic trail skills, and everyone gave me a hard time. They simply would not let me forget it. Good thing I could laugh at myself!
Teachers also need the ability to understand students, and to personally connect with them. No two children are alike. They all have very different needs, and they all learn at their own pace. You can never give up on them. I had a little girl in one of my classes who struggled in math all year long. We spent many hours after school counting M&Ms and pretzels and exploring every possible way to help her grasp math concepts. On the last day of school, all the other children were outside for recess and she stayed in the room. She told me she didn’t want to go outside because she “wanted to stay in fourth grade just a little longer.” As teachers, we need to remember that there’s a student like that in every classroom. I keep a little sign on my desk that says “Students will not care what you know until they know how much you care.” There is so much truth to that.
A Typical Day
Reeths says he normally likes to arrive at school an hour earlier than his students, to prepare for the day. He sets up his room, puts assignments on the board, and checks to be sure he has all his classroom materials ready. After the students arrive, he takes attendance and their lessons begin.
We normally start each day with spelling. On Mondays we review the week’s words, and on Fridays we have spelling tests. After spelling we work on reading for about an hour. We’ll discuss a particular story, and talk about different reading methods. We spend quite a bit of time on reading because it is such an important skill, and I really want them to enjoy it. After that we work on English, writing, history, math, and other subjects.
Reeths says that no matter what he teaches, he wants his students to do more than just learn about a subject. He wants them to understand why they are learning about subjects. “When I was young, I found myself wondering ‘why do I need to know this?’ I don’t want my students to ask that—I want them to know that everything they learn connects in some way with real life.”
Why He Teaches
Sometimes people who are not teachers ask Reeths why he teaches.
I answer by saying that I teach because it’s my passion. I love it. I feel like I’m making a positive difference in the lives of young people. I’ve always said that if I ever find myself walking into a classroom and dreading the day ahead, then it would be time to quit. That hasn’t happened. I can come in here half asleep and grumpy, yet as soon as my kids get in the room, they brighten the day.
Of course teaching has its challenging points, just like any job. I’m fortunate to work in a good school district where there really aren’t many problems. However, some teachers aren’t so lucky. Those who teach in the poorer schools have kids who bring a lot of baggage to school with them. In fact, their teacher may be the only stable adult they know. I’ve known teachers who spent their time off at Wal-Mart buying hats and mittens for students who didn’t have any. These situations are very sad, yet the teachers still have a chance to make a difference in the lives of their students.
Reeths has had many memorable experiences in his six years of teaching, but one in particular stands out. It involved the same little girl who had not wanted to leave his fourth grade class. She had finished elementary school and was ready to enter junior high. Her mother wrote Reeths a letter and told him she had asked her daughter what she would miss most about elementary school. The girl’s reply was, “Pizza Hut Pizza Day and Mr. Reeths.” The mother also wrote that the extra time Reeths had spent with her daughter made a huge difference—that he made her believe she was capable, and that she could succeed. “That’s a perfect example of what can happen when a teacher really cares. When a child wants to learn, you don’t mind the extra effort, you just do whatever you need to do. In the end, the experience you give them is the experience that’s going to stay with them for a long time.”
Message for Kids
Reeths says that anyone considering a career in teaching needs to be enthusiastic about it, and motivated to spend their days helping young people.
A lot of kids want to become teachers because they know they’ll have summers off, or because their students will give them presents. However, if you’re going to be a good teacher, you need enthusiasm for the job. Think about the teachers you’ve really liked, the ones who made learning fun. They were interesting and funny, they did special things in class, they valued what you had to say. That’s important. That’s the difference between being a good teacher, and being a great teacher.
13 All quotes in “Meet a Teacher”: Jeff Reeths, interview by author, August 28, 2002.