Teachers & Students: The Heart of the Community--Pat Walsh

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Upper School history

"Students know I'm on their side"

From the Spring 2010 Caller

What makes teaching young people so special is that they give back so much. We cover subjects, but I’m willing to let there be serendipity. They know that if something occurs to them, they can raise their hands, and we’ll kick it around. They learn American history, but they also learn that what they know is valued. That’s what learning is: constantly applied knowledge.

 
I talk about my own experiences, and my family’s ancestors. I talk about my father, and why he voted for Eisenhower, or signed a loyalty oath to teach at the University of California. History is about stories and trends, but it operates on a human level. When we talk about immigration, I talk about when my family got here from Ireland, and I ask if they know when their families came here. When we talk about the growth of labor unions, I talk about my grandfather, who joined the United Auto Workers. I use his story as color in terms of big trends, like the explosion of union membership.
 
What happens before and after class is important. We talk about our families, and I tell them about taking my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, out to lunch. I’m trying to show them there’s no boundary here. Our lives are saturated with history, and an educated person brings that to bear on daily life. I find that pleasurable. I model behavior for my students: this is how someone who is curious about the world lives his life.
 
I was more professorial when I started teaching at Catlin Gabel. I’ve become more informal: I walk in, say hello, ask what’s for lunch today. The feeling is that we’re all in it together and having a good time. If I act naturally, it seems to match what students are looking to find in a teacher. I never have to dumb it down for them. Students are respectful, kind, and polite to me. No one needs to prove who’s in charge.
 
I try to create bonds with students during extracurricular activities. Besides coaching Mock Trial, I play basketball at lunch with sophomore boys. It’s great when a student comes in his first day of history and we know each other from playing basketball. He’s already seen me in this vulnerable place, since I’m old and slow, and has come to see me as a person.
 
At C&C you get to know students on a completely different level, more as a mentor than a teacher. Students are free to argue or disagree, and my opinion doesn’t matter more than theirs. It’s not social or academic, it’s community-building. We talk about assemblies or special schedules, or admire someone’s clothes. Sometimes kids bring things they’ve baked. It mixes up different social groups and ages, and that sloshes out into the rest of their school experience.
 
Students know I’m on their side. They’ve learned that their success has nothing to do with how I feel about them. I don’t like a student better because he or she does better in class. It’s all about them as people. If they’re struggling in my class, I get to know them best and have the best relationship, because we get to meet and chat. I try to give them a taste of success so they don’t feel like a bad student or a loser. Sometimes life makes it hard to be successful. I have yet to meet a bad kid at Catlin Gabel, just kids having a hard time.
Pat Walsh came to Catlin Gabel in 2006 from teaching at Minnesota State University, Concordia College in Minnesota, and the University of Texas–Austin. He was also a Fulbright lecturer in Germany. He is a graduate of the University of Texas–Austin and California State University–Chico, and he holds a PhD from the University of California–Berkeley.