Learning is a life-long event
Steve Cummings shares his thoughts on his years of teaching
by The Voyageur Press Staff | April 26, 2005
MCGREGOR HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
Steven Cummings [1977 – Present]
Classroom: Social Studies Teacher
Extra-curricular: Athletic Director, Football coach, Basketball coach
Family: Wife Jody; Children Brittany, Derek and Ethan
Voyageur Press: Steve, what are the greatest rewards you’ve experienced in teaching?
Steve: I would have to say that having a few former students come up to me and say that they went into teaching and coaching because of what they experienced interacting with me over their high school career would be one of the biggest rewards. On a daily basis, when I get to read a student’s essay and they have really nailed it, it is a reward. First, you realize that they put forth the effort, which is a valuable life skill; and secondly you realize that someone actually took you seriously and learned this stuff. Those are the small rewards that keep teachers coming back day after day. You may also get that occasional letter from a sibling or parent of a student that thanks you for how you have helped someone over a rough spot; or they feel that you may have helped them grow up, straighten out. Those are “keepers” that I tuck away and reread occasionally when I’m having a rough time myself; or I’m second guessing myself on something. I have also had the opportunity to develop some friendships with students that have carried over into adulthood. In other words, I have been able to meet some really nice people over the years and hopefully helped them through one stage of their life. Those are things that help you keep the faith that you are indeed still on the right track.
Voyageur Press: It seems one of the biggest challenges a teacher has to face would be to find that balance between being a warm, caring, real human being students can relate to and maintaining the authority you need to keep a class moving in the right direction. How do you find that balance?
Steve: I would have to say that achieving that balance was easier earlier in my career. I have always handed out my class room expectations at the beginning of the year. The students have to take them home and have their parents sign them and bring them back. I think that helps set the tone. In many ways, I believe the student-teacher ‘respect factor’ has changed. It was easier to be able to develop some close relationships with students and student-athletes and that helped to develop that balance in the classroom. When I first began teaching I looked at the students I had in my classroom and those that I coached as more “my kids” than I probably do today. I treated them like I treated my own kids. I still do a little of that, but not as much, for a number of reasons. I feel that a swing in societal values has altered the student-teacher climate in many classrooms. In recent years I have approached my classroom more like being the CEO of my own company. I want the students to like working for “our little company;” but also to understand that they must “earn their way,” so to speak and become productive life long learners. I guess you could say I still approach it with the expectations I have put on my own kids for some students and the CEO concept for others.
Voyageur Press: What is it about teaching that most motivates you to get up on Monday mornings and go to school?
Steve: Well, to be honest I’ve never liked Monday mornings. I think now more than ever you have to be passionate about what you are teaching and believe in yourself. If you are organized and you have everything set for the week, it makes Monday mornings a lot easier. You also need to realize, that whether all of your students agree or not, you are there to try to help them become more educated. Aside from the content of class, I hopefully am also demonstrating and instilling in my students some life skills that they can take with them; regardless of how much content they remember.
Voyageur Press: What is it about teaching that is the most frustrating for you?
Steve: I am tempted to not answer this one. No matter what I say, I am in kind of a no win situation. Frustrations abound in education today. I don’t think I can give you my complete list; so here’s just a few. Money and time impact education in a number of ways. In order to best educate students many new researched methods could be used. They may take more time/money and thus something may need to be removed from the system. Where is the happy medium in education between quality and quantity? There is more to teach and more to learn and we are still trying to cram it into nine months. We still place students in school just because they are five years old, when maybe they are not emotionally or mentally ready and doom many of them to failure for thirteen years. On the flip side, we continue to keep some students in a grade because of their age, when they may be not be challenged and could move on to the next level. Learning is a two way street. I don’t feel that learning how to learn, learning and getting a K-12 education is as highly valued as it once was. I also believe that the societal values and standards that were once very high are beginning to erode. There seem to be more demands and/or distractions put on students today than ever before. This oftentimes preoccupies them in class, when they should be focusing on a particular course. Technology, as great as it can be, has also sapped a lot of personability and human interaction out of teaching and learning. Our government feels that all the ills of public education can be solved via a multitude of standardized tests. In the midst of all of this, teachers are often the targets for everything that is wrong in public education. These are but a small part of a cornucopia of frustrations that many teachers try their best to deal with.
Voyageur Press: Most students have favorite teachers. You were chosen. While teachers aren’t supposed to have “favorite” students, you must certainly relate to some students better than others. What kind of students are most enjoyable to have in class?
Steve: I think everyone has a certain type of character or personality that we may identify with more easily. However, I have a three step credo, that I relay to my students each year, which spells out my expectations. 1) Attend class regularly and often. 2) Complete and turn in all your work. 3) Give me your best effort on everything you do. I also believe that there are great ‘A’ students; great ‘B’ students; great ‘C’ students and great ‘D ‘ students. Not all students have a passion for history, I know that; but everyone can work to their potential, whatever that may be. These are life skills and if the students choose to follow them, then they’re all enjoyable students.
Voyageur Press: If you had the power to make any changes in education you wanted, what would you do differently?
Steve: You’re asking an Utopian question, so I’ll give you an Utopian answer. If I had the power as you say, I would first fix all the frustrations. Next, I would design a new public education model. Students would not enter school or be promoted simply because of how old they were. If I had the power, more money would go into education to allow more flexibility in instruction. More teachers would be needed and more rooms would be needed. Students would proceed at their own mental, emotional and physical rate. This would give some students who are bored today, incentive and opportunity to work harder. Teachers that specialized in remediation would be available for all parts of the curriculum. Not all assessments would be standardized tests. Students would be able to demonstrate what they have learned by different methods. School would not necessarily only run between September and June. Commencement would not necessarily be limited to 18 year olds. Teachers would be paid comparable to other vocations that have Bachelor and Advanced degrees. The fact is that education is one of the last institutions that still operates with top-down decision making. Many successful corporations today run their companies with a lot of input from their employees. I would not continually try to “fix” something that is one-hundred and eighty years old. I would redesign the educational model for the future. The problem is that few people want to take the risk of trying something new. What I fear may happen, however, is that the lyrics to the song In The Year 2525, will come true and we will be a technologically dependent world; and you won’t need real people to teach anymore.
Voyageur Press: What are some practical things students can do to encourage teachers?
Steve: As teachers, it is not like we really see the finished product, like making so many tons of steel or designing a new model car that can win awards. What we do is not measured in box office receipts come Monday morning. A lot of what we do is on faith. We hope people believe in us and that our efforts hit home with as many students as possible. So, there aren’t a lot of rewards that we can see day to day, or at the end of each fiscal year as in some industries. Encouragement from students comes in any number of ways, shapes and forms. As I stated earlier, just reading a great essay is encouraging. If you see someone crying and you know you helped them over a bump on life’s rocky road, that’s encouraging. A student may give you a hand-made birthday card or get well card; that’s encouraging. It really doesn’t take much to encourage a teacher. On another level, I can say that some things classes do to honor teachers are very encouraging. Up until 1995, classes at M.H.S. used to dedicate the yearbook to different employees of the school. I don’t know of any recipients who didn’t appreciate and feel encouraged by that. Most recently, classes have asked a particular teacher to be keynote speaker at commencement. Some individual former students have nominated faculty members for publications like Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Things like this go above and beyond what it takes to encourage teachers, but they are really appreciated and remembered. Likewise, teachers nominate many of their students and student-athletes for honors also.
Voyageur Press: How do you keep your subject or area of study interesting year after year?
Steve: Well, I am very interested in many of the new methods being researched about how we all learn differently. I have attended classes on brain-based, multiple intelligences, constructivism and self-directed learning to name a few. All of these researched methods are aimed at engaging the students more. The catch is that these new methods take time. In my content area, there is a lot of new information being discovered about all areas of history. One cannot just be satisfied with the information presented twenty years ago. You have to keep abreast of new research. There is new information about many things from Amelia Earhart to the Alamo to the identity of the real King Arthur. I just finished reading Flags Of Our Fathers, which is about the lives of the six men that were in the photo of the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima. In it, it talks of a man who lied about his age, enlisted and ended up on Iwo Jima; and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Including small points of interest like this helps a lot of students to remember history better. As teachers, we all have an obligation to keep as updated in both of these areas as possible. It helps if you have a passion for your content area, which most teachers do.
Voyageur Press: Students sometimes feel like school is a drag. They get bored and they wish they were someplace else. How do teachers feel?
Steve: I think that because there is so much for students to do outside of school today they are more easily bored in school. Many students today expect to be entertained. For example, when I began teaching it was a real treat for students to watch a 16 mm film on a five-by-six-foot screen. It may be about the first American ascent of Mt. Everest or the Normandy Invasion. Now almost three decades later, I have a 19” TV and a VHS player. Many of my students have larger TV’s and more video technology in their bedrooms today. They have cable or satellite dishes. They can watch the discovery channel or the history channel if they’re so inclined. From a technology standpoint their isn’t much the school has that many students don’t already have. If we could have 30 computers per class room; and money was no object I would purchase my text books on CD/DVD. Most districts don’t have that luxury. I try to actively engage my students whenever possible with different methods of research-based learning and also try to incorporate artifacts into my instruction that they can actually touch and feel. Even so it is tough to compete with the interests outside of school. I used to go by the credo of one of my mentor teachers whom had on a poster in his classroom: Knowledge dispensed here...bring your own container. In recent years, I have shifted to the following: It is not so much what is poured into the student, but what is planted, that really counts. Hey, we do what we can do.
Voyageur Press: What do you wish more students understood about teachers? About you?
Steve: Not to sound facetious, but I wish students understood that teachers are humans first and teachers somewhere down the line after that. We are fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, too. We have hobbies and other interests outside of the school day. We have emotions and frustrations and problems just like they do. In many ways, we probably felt the same way they do about a lot of the same things they do. Often times we may agree with student view points, but still have to carry out our jobs to the best of our abilities. Often times as teachers and coaches we feel like we have to please the students, the parents, the administration and the legislature; not to mention the media. So, in the end, we have to keep the faith and decide to do what each of us believes is best.
Voyageur Press: Please tell a little about yourself as well.
Steve: I was born in Mora, Minnesota. My parents moved to Esko, Minnesota in 1957 and I graduated from Thompson Township High School, in Esko, MN. I graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, with a B.A.A. in History and coaching certification. I have been a teacher at McGregor High School, I.S.D. #4, in McGregor, Minnesota, since 1977. I completed my Masters of Education in Teaching and Learning from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. I hold a current teaching license in history and coaching. While at McGregor, I have taught eighth grade World Geography, United States History and World History. I have designed and taught College Prep Geography, Minnesota History, Westward Expansion and United Sates History Since World War Two.
I have been married to my wife Jody since 1977. Our first daughter, Brittannia died shortly after being born in 1981. Since then we have had three more children. Brittany, was born in 1983. She will graduate from the College of St. Scholastica with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing in May of 2005. Derek was born in 1985 and is currently attending the University of Minnesota, Duluth for a degree in Business. Ethan was born in 1989. He is attending McGregor High School.
I have held a number of coaching positions over my tenure. My coaching experience includes the following: Assistant Varsity football 1994-2003, 1979-89; Assistant Varsity boys’ basketball, 1981-95; Varsity girls’ basketball, 1980-81; Assistant Varsity girls’ basketball, 1978-80; Assistant Varsity track; Athletic Director 1999-2000,1995-96.
I have a passion for the fur trade era of Minnesota History and I have presented or assisted in presenting programs on that period of Minnesota History.
In closing, throughout the whole process I like to follow the “K.I.S.S.” philosophy; which is “keep it simple, stupid.” Keeping it simple should not be confused with keeping it boring, however. I have found over the years that most of my wide spectrum of students aren’t against learning if they understand what exactly it is that they are suppose to learn. As in coaching, the more simple the play the easier it is to execute properly. It does not have to be complicated to be effective. The same philosophy can apply to coaching in the classroom.
This article first appeared in the April 26, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.