Mathias Schergen and Raymond Macdonald 2007
How do the best educators stay fresh after decades in the trenches? A few award-winning teachers share their secrets.
Published Online: December 22, 2006
Published in Print: January 1, 2007, as Forever Young
-By Steven Drummond
“I’m always looking for the nuance of the thing. Where’s it going to be different? What can I do to make it different, year to year?” That’s Mathias “Spider” Schergen, one of the teachers who’d been recognized as a top Chicago-area educator by the Golden Apple Foundation—a nonprofit that seeks to advance the profession in Illinois. Each year’s winners, selected through a vigorous vetting process, are awarded $3,000, a personal computer, and a one-semester sabbatical.
Schergen, who had just returned from his, teaches at the Edward Jenner Academy of the Arts, a preK-8 school of about 600 African American students, 98 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price meals. Even in broad daylight, the streets surrounding Jenner in the infamous Cabrini-Green neighborhood are scary. Giant concrete-and-steel buildings are stained with rust and graffiti. The gang- and drug-related violence—exemplified by the 1992 shooting death of a 7-year-old as he walked to Jenner with his mother—is not as prevalent as it once was, but the poverty is still palpable.
Most teachers working in such a neighborhood would consider surviving just one year an achievement. Schergen’s been at Jenner for 13. When I asked what keeps him going, his answer summed up what I’d noticed about all four honorees I observed during my visit: “The older I get, the better I get, and that’s really exciting.”
Schergen is an art teacher, and looks it. Think of Sylvester Stallone playing a beatnik poet, wearing a black beret, goatee, jeans, and black Converse All Stars. He has a relaxed, easygoing way of talking that changes markedly when he’s in the classroom. There, he becomes “Mr. Spider,” a joking, cajoling hipster. Now 53 years old, he created the nickname—and the persona—on his first day at Jenner. “I thought, ‘How can I make a splash?’ I love spiders, and so I told the students my name was ‘Mr. Spider.’ It got them all curious about me. I kind of put that metaphor out there that ‘you’re in my web,’ and it caught on like wildfire.”
It was nearing the end of the school day as I sat in on his origami lesson with 3rd graders, and the students were a little rowdy at first. “Some people ain’t even listenin’,” Schergen told them. “Stay calm, stay cool. I like you guys.” The 17-year teaching veteran walked them through the folding of papers to make little hats, pausing at times to help those who’d fallen behind: “Oh, sorry, baby girl—fold it like this.”
The lesson went well, but an hour later, waiting for students to show up, Schergen seemed unusually nervous, pacing up and down the hallway outside his classroom. In a few minutes, he’d be launching an after-school boys’ club—an attempt to instill leadership principles in kids while channeling their artistic interests. The plan was to meet once a week to work on music, film, and video-production projects. But students had to audition first. It was a way, Schergen explained, to weed out those who weren’t truly committed.
The auditions were to begin at 2:30 in front of four student judges. The candidates had to either perform a rap song they’d written or play a “beat” with drumsticks. And during a brief interview, they’d have to explain why they wanted to join. At the appointed time, Schergen checked the hallway to see who’d shown up. “Brother Steele ain’t out there,” he told the judges, “so it looks like Don Wallace is first. All right, Brother Wallace.” A shy, thin boy shuffled in, clutching a scrap of paper on which lyrics had been written in pencil. He rapped so softly and quickly, it was hard to follow.
As the auditions continued, I was struck by Schergen’s anxiety. But it provided me with an opportunity to broach the big question I’d come to ask. Here was a guy who’d been doing this stuff day in, day out for years. He’d been recognized as one of the best teachers in Chicago, and as with all the educators I visited, he’d been praised by students, colleagues, and parents. Yet because he’d never started an audition-based club like this before, he wasn’t taking for granted that it would be at all successful. He was stretching himself. “I guess that’s part of the reason to stay excited and stay geeked up about it,” he explained, “because I see the progress in my own teaching. I just like the idea of always refining and expanding what I’ve done already.”
Not that teaching is all Schergen does. He likes to create assemblages and shadow boxes using found objects—bits of rope and twisted iron, for example—in a small studio set up in the garage of his home, where he lives with his wife, Vanessa, and their youngest son. It’s a place where he can clear his head of the pressures of school and students’ lives.
“It’s this whole decompression chamber,” he explained. “My art gives me the chance to make decisions and make choices that have no other value than … how I think those things should be done.”
I couldn’t help but note something else about Schergen: how completely his manner of speaking changes when he’s not around students. Vanessa laughed when I asked her about this. “In class,” she explained, “he has to speak the lingo, operate with a louder voice—do those kinds of things.” At home, she added, “he’s quieter, but he’s still the same crazy, wacky guy.”
Schergen loves the classroom theatrics. “Those little antics and the little jokes and teasing the kids—it really invigorates the group,” he explained. “I never thought of myself in this way, but it’s like a standup comedian.”
It’s also an approach that helps him connect with kids whose home lives are vastly different from his own. Less than a third of Jenner’s students pass Illinois’ standardized tests for reading, math, and science. So isn’t it frustrating, I asked, teaching kids who may not make it, no matter how much inspiration he provides?
“It’s happened frequently. The boys, they tend to end up dead; and the girls, they end up pregnant,” Schergen said. This forces him to put his involvement with students in perspective: “I try not to overreach or overestimate who I am in the context of the big picture.”
But as I interviewed a stocky 12-year-old named Raymond McDonald, it became clear that his teacher develops real bonds with students. “He’s different in his own special way,” Raymond said of Schergen. “He has a sense of humor. But if someone’s acting up, he won’t holler at ’em unless they disrespect him. He won’t hurt you. He’ll say, ‘Get out of my room, son or brother.’ He’ll treat you like you’re his own family. He even invited me to his house before. I went over twice.”
Schergen was quick to insist that he’s no different than many colleagues at Jenner. He sometimes gripes about the same things: penny-pinching, paperwork, rude or abusive parents. “I have my people at the school I complain with,” he admitted. “We have our little powwows and cry on each other’s shoulder.” But, he added, “I learned very early on from a very wise teacher that you can get caught in the blame game and you don’t go any further. It’s a way of abdicating your responsibility in the situation.”
Schergen and his Golden Apple colleagues embody a fundamental idea about teaching laid down early in the 20th century by John Dewey, a philosopher and progressive educator. “Dewey refers to it as the ‘cycle of reflective thought’” in his book How We Think, says Fredrick Goodman, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Michigan. Veterans who stay engaged, he adds, accept constant analysis and revision as a personal challenge—“a cognitive, or intellectual, or academic challenge that’s exciting, and worth doing.”
Schergen is an art teacher, and looks it.
Think of Sylvester Stallone playing a beatnik poet, wearing a black beret, goatee, jeans, and black Converse All Stars.
“It’s very sad,” he said, “especially when the boys get shot.”
“Does that happen a lot?”