Helping to find a personal way of understanding
An interview with Pete Koenig
by The Voyageur Press Staff | April 26, 2005
CROMWELL HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
Pete Koenig [1990 – Present]
Classroom: Math and Science
Extra-curricular: Firearm Safety Instructor, Cross County Coach
Family: Wife Kathy; Children Nick and Jenna
Voyageur Press: What are the greatest rewards you’ve experienced in teaching?
Pete: This is a double-edged question. I get to watch these students grow up. I see them as little preschoolers and elementary students, then watch them as they grow and mature from 7th grade to finally Seniors. With some, I will have been fortunate enough to have developed close relationships. I have shared in some of their successes, also I will have shared with some their sadness and grief. Finally, I get to watch these students walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, knowing that I am losing people that I would call friends.
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?
Pete: That is a tricky one for all teachers. For me it is a little easier purely by the nature of the subject matter I teach, math and physics. These topics generally do not lend themselves to open discussion about myself, thus the rigor alone seems to set up a wall of respect and establishes its own momentum in the classroom. That and the fact that I can be a task master when I have to be, seems to help.
Voyageur Press: What is it about teaching that most motivates you to get up on Monday mornings and go to school?
Pete: The fact that I am not going to work, but going to do what I enjoy doing, teaching students the intricacies of math/science and showing them that a person can be successful without taking advantage of others. I try and show by example that it is okay to care about other people.
Voyageur Press: What is it about teaching that is the most frustrating to you?
Pete: I think the most frustrating thing for me is the trend that we are seeing across America in the public schools. Today’s students are different. They have access to more technology, information, and less parental supervision. This is not true of all students and parents but the numbers are growing. Students come to school with cell phones, chatting or texting to friends between classes (at least that is the rule), they have access to the internet and all the good and bad which it entails. How many students have a game system or DVD player in their bedroom? The time students would have spent with family and chores or doing homework is now totally unstructured and unsupervised. Students now simply disappear to their rooms and then what? For the teacher, the student now comes to school with a parent note trying to falsely explain why some assignment wasn’t completed. The thought today is that the teacher gives too much work or is too hard and expects too much from the student. When the truth is we have a society failing to hold its children and parents accountable. Current government policy and school accountability (teacher accountability) seem to be a knee jerk response to a problem that would best be solved by getting our society to truly value education and supporting the system of education.
Voyageur Press: Most students have favorite teachers. You were chosen. Even though 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 for you to have in class?
Pete: Students that come ready to learn are easy first choices. However, I especially like working with the student who has a little harder time with a topic, maybe is not as gifted but is willing to try. It is great watching this student develop and mature over the years to the point where he or she finds success based on hard work. These students will challenge a teacher in the classroom, forcing that teacher to find the right tools to help the student. The teacher that invests the time becomes a far greater teacher.
Voyageur Press: If you had the power to make any changes in the education system you wanted, what would you do differently?
Pete: I think my students would want me to say that school should start at about 10:00 a.m., that would really be helpful. This is actually a loaded question. Since everyone is educated, we all feel that we are experts and know what is best when it comes to teaching. From my perspective in the classroom, I feel that our society as a whole needs to change its opinion on the importance of education. When one compares our students with those of other countries on standardized tests we see our students lacking knowledge and react to that. But what we do not see is how hard these other countries are working to educate their young and the importance that education has for that country’s future prosperity. When one takes a global look at developing nations and developing economies, one sees education held high. If we are to hold our place as a world economic power and keep our prosperity, it will not be policies that will keep us strong, but a fundamental change in how parents and students need to be held accountable. Teachers are unable to fix anything educationally until all parents start doing their job, having high expectations and consequences at home, and valuing the importance of education to this county’s future and security.
Voyageur Press: Are there some practical things students can do to encourage teachers?
Pete: All that a teacher needs is someone willing to try. If students attend class ready to learn, that means that the homework has been completed, readings read and problems completed, then the class can take off and explore, going places new and opening the students’ minds. Without being prepared, time is wasted reviewing and getting everyone to the same knowledge level so that the learning can be meaningful.
Voyageur Press: How do you keep your subject or area of study interesting year after year?
Pete: To tell the truth, mathematics really does not change that much, adding is still adding, algebra is still those crazy letter equations. For me, I take the students’ own prior knowledge and let that guide our examples and notes, tailoring some of the concepts to something meaningful to the particular class of students. On a professional level, I do go to conferences to learn about the latest and greatest teaching tips, techniques and texts. These help to re-energize teachers to get back in the classroom to try something new. In addition, I take math or science or computer courses over the summers, just to keep building my personal body of knowledge in areas of interest to both myself and for the school district.
Voyageur Press: Students sometimes feel like school is a drag. They get bored and they wish they were someplace else. How do teachers feel?
Pete: From the teacher’s perspective, we see and feel this pressure and we lament. We do everything we can to make our material as stimulating and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, not every topic is exciting to every student, no matter how you sing and dance the material to the students, some still wish to be somewhere else, anywhere else. So, as teachers, we are frustrated. We can never be as exciting as the newest movie or video game. Some little facts that I feel really affect today’s student: They watch TV. Have you ever counted how frequently a TV commercial will change its scene? Today’s children have a brain that has been bombarded by images at an ever increasing rate, whether through TV or video game play. This is changing how the mind processes data and I have no idea what else it might be doing to our children. The studies have begun and I am afraid what the results might be for a generation of children.
Voyageur Press: What do you wish more students understood about teachers? About you?
Pete: I think most students know this, but sometimes they need to see or hear it. Most teachers are, ultimately, in the students’ corner, no matter what they feel or believe. As a teacher, there would be nothing better than to give a test or have a class where every student received an A+ or 100 percent, due to the hard work that the students have accomplished. The grade scale is a system used to show the student where the current level of work or understanding of material lies. Myself, I am willing to (and actually do) spend time before and after school, helping students find their personal way of understanding the math we learn. At night, I will go online and answer any math questions my students have, until about 10:00pm, then it is lights out. This gives the students a chance to get immediate help on a question instead of getting stuck and frustrated. The problem is that most of the time, the students just like to chat. But that has its fun, too. The students begin to realize that teachers are actually people, too.
Voyageur Press: Please tell me a little about yourself as well.
Pete: I hate to say it, but I originally come from St. Paul. I went to Como Park High school, graduated and went to the College of St. Thomas (now University of St. Thomas). I received my Masters’ Degree in Education from St. Thomas and last summer completed a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Bemidji State University. I married my high school sweetheart (14 years together) and have 2 children who go to Cromwell in the elementary. I am an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy; I enjoy hunting, fishing and camping with my family. I especially enjoy spending time teaching archery to my children. I am one of our school’s Firearms Safety Instructors; I am the head negotiator for the teachers’ union at Cromwell, I coach the Cross Country running team, and my favorite color is blue.
This article first appeared in the April 26, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.