In 1961, when my father began teaching high school English, John F. Kennedy was president, the average yearly income was $5,000 and the Green Bay Packers were the NFL champions. Now, 50 years later, the world has completely changed. Well, almost. It’s 2011 and the Packers are still winning, but more amazing to me is the fact that my dad, Alan Zacker, is still teaching. I spoke to him recently about his longevity as a teacher and how things have changed since he first started.
Why did you become a teacher?
Teaching was a calling for me. It was something I had a natural aptitude for. I started right after earning my undergraduate degree in 1961 and then earned my graduate degree while teaching.
Did graduate school help you become a better teacher or did you learn most of it on the job?
When I was in graduate school most of the things I was taught, I was already doing in the classroom. I think today’s grad students learn differently and are much better prepared.
How was school different when you were first teaching?
There was more of a relationship between students and teachers then. Kids told me everything that was going on in their lives. I don’t know if they did that with every teacher, but with me they did. Today it’s more stand-offish. I’m not saying there aren’t some great teachers who do this today, but it was more common back then. Today there’s less trust. I think it’s a shame because there’s such a terrible need for this. There are so many broken families due to things like divorce, etc. and teachers should be aware if their kids are going through a tough time at home. That way you know if they act out, it’s not necessarily because of your teaching style.
How would you define your teaching style?
I’ve always taken a humanistic approach. People used to ask me what I teach and I’d say, “Life, with a minor in English.” I tried to apply anything we read to life lessons rather than beating them over the head with themes and analysis. You got a lot of feedback that way. Treat them like people, not just like they’re the children and I’m the adult. It’s a relationship. I always tell my students, “I’m here for you. I’m your champion.” Kids respond to that.
Does that style still work with today’s students?
It’s much more difficult today. It’s not totally education’s fault. I think the breakup of the family is a big part of the problem. Families don’t do stuff together anymore; everyone is too busy to even have dinner together. Kids also have far less respect for any kind of authority today so it’s tough for teachers. I’ve had kids misbehave just for the attention. Then once I reprimand them, they’re my best friend. It’s how they get noticed.
Even though these days you’re a substitute teacher, your Rate My Teacher ratings continue to be sky high. Why do your students love you so much?
Because I love them. I’ve never presented myself as someone above them. I tell them, “A lot of you are smarter than me. The only thing I have is more experience. That’s all you have to do and you can accomplish whatever you want.” I don’t consider myself a great teacher, but I am a motivator. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t fight what their parents haven’t instilled in them.
Do you know any seasoned teachers? I’d love to hear about them. Part 2 of the interview with my Dad next week.