Tired of all the bashing of public education? This should lift your spirits

Zieska and Welter
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
After four decades, Ken Zieska, left, reunited with his former high school history teacher, Mark Welter, to tell him how applicable what he learned there was throughout his career.

For the last couple of decades, politicians have been pretty regularly bashing public education and classroom teachers. What follows is a small antidote to that steady stream of criticism.

At the start of the school year, Ken Zieska was back at Cooper High, preparing to be a volunteer at the Robbinsdale school from which he graduated in 1969.

Zieska, retired from business and a career as an officer in the National Guard, spotted a plaque on the wall honoring a former history teacher of his, Mark Welter.

“I’d like to say hi to him,” Zieska told the volunteer coordinator. “Do you suppose I could have his email address?”

Zieska was given the address and wrote his old teacher a note, thanking him for a memorable class.

“Good to hear from you,” Welter responded. He said that he was honored that Zieska remembered him but “can’t say I remember you.”

That he couldn’t remember Zieska isn’t too surprising. Over his career, the 77-year-old Welter, who now teaches history courses to seniors as a volunteer at a program offered by the University of Minnesota, figures he’s taught more than 20,000 students.

The student and the old teacher eventually got together, the student saying that he’d applied the lessons of the world course – from the big bang to the present – to many facets of his life.

Welter taught world history around 12 concepts. A quick summary:

1. Has any civilization been permanently successful?

 2. Does history offer evidence for a “superior” race, creed or culture?

 3. What is the impact of technology on culture?

4. How much unity is needed to have a culture function well?

5. Has anything in history happened because of one cause?

6. What is the best approach to change (revolution or gradual)?

7. Have there always been two logical views in addressing problems?

8. How important is a group’s emphasis on learning?

9. To what extent do poverty and lack of opportunity lead to “isms”?

10. Are there general similarities between past and present?

11. To what extent do geography, topography and climate shape values and social structures?

12.  To what extent do cultural values and historical eras influence art styles and subjects?

“In business and in the military, I’d think about how nothing that happens is isolated,” Zieska recalled. “What happens on a factory floor is not an island.”

 When Zieska learned that Welter still was teaching the world history course, now to old folks instead of adolescents, Zieska retook the course to help him with his volunteer work at Cooper.

“What I remembered about his course was the enthusiasm he had,” said Zieska. “It was a high-energy class.”

More than four decades later, Welter has the same enthusiasm. The biggest problem Zieska had in retaking the course, it turned out, was working out how to address his teacher. He kept calling Welter “Mr. Welter.”

“Would you please call me ‘Mark,’ ” Welter said.

“Yes, sir,” he responded.

Zieska has tried to apply the lessons of Welter in his volunteer work at Cooper, which is a different place from the one when he graduated. He volunteered because Zieska is one of those “make a difference” people.

You can, he figures, sit in the stands and complain, or you can get involved.

He’s involved at a place that’s very different from when he was there as a student. Four decades ago, the school was filled with virtually all-white, middle-class students. Now the halls are filled with diversity – racial (Latins, Africans, Asians, African-Americans) and economic.

The challenges facing teachers, Zieska says, are far greater from when he was a student. There are language issues. Students are “over-stimulated” by the technology all around them. But the vast majority of teachers he has seen as a four-hour-a-week volunteer seem to relish the challenge, Zieska said. What he has seen is a far cry from the drumbeat of political and news stories about bad teachers.

“I don’t doubt that there are teachers who have burned out,” Zieska said. “You see that in any company, in any profession. And I think it’s too bad that there aren’t ways for mid-career professionals to come into teaching without having to go through all the hoops.”

Overall, though, he says, he sees the same sort of enthusiasm among teachers that his old history teacher showed then.

Welter despises the criticism teachers have been taking, and he abhors the emphasis on testing that politicians have created.

“Memorize, regurgitate,” he said with contempt. “All the emphasis on math and science. … Remembering is not learning. A change in behavior is learning.”

The pols – and media – are pushing “left-brain”methods, Welter says. He is a “right-brain” (creative) guy.

The old teacher and his former student were at Cooper recently, talking together about all matter of things: education, politics and, of course, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This all started with Reagan,” said Welter of the spill. “He’s the guy who said, ‘Get government off my back.’ “

Zieska had a quick response.

“I have to say, ‘I learned once there’s no single cause for anything that happens.’ “

The old teacher laughed. That’s Concept 5. His student had learned well.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Annette Caruthers on 06/08/2010 - 09:26 am.

    Another insightful read by Doug Grow! Welter has the great teacher’s knack of bringing his subject into students’ real lives by asking questions that get them thinking and have importance in every era. I don’t know how Mr. Grow keeps finding these people and subjects, but I really hope he keeps looking for them. Thank you, MinnPost, for publishing these articles. I will continue to contribute!

  2. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 06/08/2010 - 11:44 am.

    Thanks to Doug Grow for a good column on teaching and public education. It’s time we all started to stand up for teachers who get bashed daily. Without good public school teachers few of us would be where we are today. Apparently, though, too few learned that respect is–or should be–one of the three r’s, along with responsibility. Actually that makes five r’s and it’s time we started applying the last two. Let’s be responsible and pay teachers what they are worth and give them the respect they deserve.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/08/2010 - 11:59 am.

    Thanks. After reading the Strib lately I thought all reporters were no sending their kids to private schools and trying their best to move forward the Republican goal of vouchers.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/08/2010 - 07:57 pm.

    Great story, that has absolutely nothing to do with why the NEA and it’s affiliates are finally being reigned in by a justifiably outraged public.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/09/2010 - 07:08 am.

    I am “tired” of the “trickle down” education system that is that has trapped many students on the reservation of union education.

    Instead of investing in unions, administrators, programs, and fluff, let us invest in kids!

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/09/2010 - 08:09 am.

    It seems to me that evaluating teachers on the students performance can create perverse incentives for teachers to avoid teaching in the toughest schools.

    I would rather see evaluation and performance based bonus pay of teachers based on their knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching and the time they spend actively teaching. Both of these metrics can be fairly measured, reflect only the teachers and are closely associated with increased student test scores and a better learning experience.

  7. Submitted by Joe Mish on 06/09/2010 - 09:02 am.

    This story is more reflective of the state of teaching and public education in Minnesota than anything published in the Star-Tribune the past couple months. Most teachers are dedicated, they work hard, and they care about their students (often spending more time with them than their own kids). There are a lot of Mr. Welters out there. Thanks to Mr. Grow for not drinking the Governor’s kool-aid.

  8. Submitted by JoAnne Clark on 06/12/2010 - 05:43 pm.

    As a teacher from California, I was heartened to read this. Thanks for the thoughtful article. Too bad union-bashing couldn’t be kept out of the comments. Unless things work differently in Minnesota, teachers and administration are not represented by the same entity.

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