Though movies and TV shows tend to portray high school as a power struggle between teenagers and adults, in reality, it’s much more complicated.
Though the stereotype of the strict, uncompromising teacher who holds his students to ridiculous standards is not completely without basis, most teachers have been in their students’ shoes before and are perfectly willing to help anyone who’s having trouble in a class. After all, it is a teacher’s job to teach, and refusing to cooperate with students makes that difficult, if not impossible.
According to GLHS social studies teacher Jack Vander Sluis, cooperation and respect on the part of the teacher is the best way to inspire the same in students.
“I had a hard time learning to respect the teachers in middle school and high school, yet I found that I learned to love and respect the teachers that treated me with respect and dignity and not as if I was a child,” Vander Sluis said. “These feelings have definitely shaped the way that I try to treat students in my own classroom.”
This is Vander Sluis’ third year of being a high school teacher, but education wasn’t always the career path he had in mind, nor was social studies. In fact, his attitude towards high school as a teenager reflects those of many current GLHS students.
“I did not ever think that I would become a teacher,” said Vander Sluis. “I wasn’t a very good student in high school, and, beyond socializing, I didn’t really care to be in school.”
Due to his dissatisfaction with school, after high school, Vander Sluis dropped out of college and left home to hike the Appalachian trail. During this hike, however, he unexpectedly received some encouragement and advice from another educator.
“Around a campfire one night, an English professor from Penn State asked me what my likes and dislikes were, what I was passionate about, and how I was disappointed with society,” Vander Sluis said. “By the end of the conversation, he had me convinced that, if I didn’t become a teacher, I was running away from the problems I saw around me rather than working to change my surroundings for the better.”
After this, Vander Sluis returned to university with the professor’s advice in mind. While he worked towards getting his education, he earned several teaching internships, some in the U.S. and some international, and he graduated from Calvin College with not just the qualifications to teach, but experience as well.
Though his initial experiences with the American school system were subpar, they have enabled Vander Sluis to become the sort of teacher he would’ve wanted to have in his teenage years.
“People become teachers for a lot of reasons,” Vander Sluis said. “Some love their subject material, others did really well in school and figure it’s the next logical step, but, for me, it came from a love of people.”
Vander Sluis’ self-defined “love of people” also influenced his decision to teach history, which he believes is very important for teenagers to learn and apply to their everyday lives.
“I think new and uncomfortable experiences make us better people and, likewise, studying people, places, and events from our world’s history mold us into more well rounded, open-minded, and informed citizens of the world,” Vander Sluis said. “We live in a world where it’s more important than ever to see things from multiple perspectives, and I think that social studies classes help prepare young adults to do just that.”
In the end, however, the decision to teach came before the decision to teach social studies. Above all else, Vander Sluis got into high school education because of a desire to actively engage with and inform the next generation.
“I really enjoy learning about history, geography and politics, but if I am being honest, I chose to become a teacher because I love engaging with people. It wasn’t until later that I found a subject that I liked in order to work with people in the classroom,” Vander Sluis said.
Nowadays, a majority of students dislike school and regard it as either a waste of time or simply inefficient in actually preparing them for post-educational life. However, rather than graduating and never looking back, Vander Sluis encourages these teenagers to consider whether they should attempt to make a change in the system.
“Teachers have been too much of the same, traditionally, and I think it is incredibly important that people with new personalities and skill sets and goals and backgrounds become teachers,” Vander Sluis said. “Only then will we be able to reach more students and connect with those that have had trouble seeing themselves in the adults that they spend so much of their formative years with.”
However, not everyone is suited for life as a high school teacher, and Vander Sluis also stresses the importance of assuring potential teachers are ready for all the obligations that come along with such a career.
“People should really dig deep and articulate the reasons that they want to teach for themselves,” Vander Sluis said. “Questions like: Are you prepared to work with people who may not want anything to do with you? Are you able to see things from lots of different perspectives? Are you a good planner? Are you a good improviser? Do you enjoy speaking in front of people?”
While it’s true that there are viable post-secondary options beyond just university degrees, students who are well and truly disenchanted with the American education system might actually want to consider becoming teachers themselves: “Bottomline,” Vander Sluis said, “if you don’t like school, do something about it.”