Matrix Staff Writer
Volume XXXVIII: Issue 6: Page 1
Mr. Thomas Stork has been teaching physics at Athens High School for quite a long time. This year, he has decided to retire after 32 years of teaching. Matrix interviewed him about the school, the students, his favorite moments and more.
When was your first year here? What was it like? How long have you been teaching?
I was 32 years old, 32 years ago when I first started teaching at Athens High School. Both the structure of the school day and the building were significantly different then. Athens High School still employed what was called “modular scheduling.” “Mods” were fifteen minutes in length, and depending on the course or activities to take place, a scheduled period could last from one to four mods. Rather than being assigned to study halls, students could go to any lab, the library, or just hang out in the gym lobby or smoker’s patio behind the cafeteria. Naturally, students took advantage of this unscheduled time for academic enrichment and opportunities for public display of affection. Modular scheduling did permit class time to be tailored to the kind of activities planned to take place in a class and the level of engagement that could be expected from students, but it was a nightmare to arrange, and many students and teachers had their unscheduled time snipped into disconnected fifteen minute blocks scattered through the day. By 1980 the administration had already begun to phase it out.
Speaking of phasing, course levels then were assigned phases from 1 to 5 based on the level of academic challenge. Phase 1 represented remedial course work and Phase 5 the equivalent of our current AP or accelerated courses. We faced the same problems then that we do now of students sorting into various phases more because of socioeconomic and peer expectations than for substantive reasons. And the grade weighting associated with the various phases then as now acted to enforce students’ impression that their “pay” for course work was the grade points awarded and not the new knowledge and intellectual tools they gained. All this has taught me that students will direct their efforts toward meeting what they perceive are our expectations, and that this can lead to a fruitless “game of school.”
The building too was quite different. As I said, there was a smoking area for students behind the cafeteria, and both the gym lobby and the south end hallway were much larger then. The area which is now the atrium, and both building end lobbies where filled with hanging lockers beneath which were coat hooks with chains by which to secure your coat. Sometimes upperclassmen would secure freshmen there. All the rooms, hallways and lobbies were carpeted, and although most classrooms were by then partitioned off from adjoining ones, the partitions didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling, and the library was a wide-open space.
How has school changed since you began teaching?
Physically, the school and grounds have improved markedly. Our building, parking areas, playing fields, and land lab are beautiful and much more functional than 30 years ago. A great deal of the credit for this should go to Mr. Meek and to both Mr. Meek and Mr. Weinfurtner for the land lab. In addition, the educational technology we’ve come to take for granted was barely dreamed of when I first started teaching.
Our Athens High School students are pretty much the same as they have always been. They were and are bright, often intensely interested in issues and learning, naturally naive, mostly polite and caring toward one another.
On the other hand, what happens in our classrooms hasn’t changed much either. In some senses this is good because we have a dedicated and intelligent faculty who recognize the task of preparing our students to be capable, engaged citizens as the privilege it is. At the same time, we too often fail to make the most of the insights of educational research that have demonstrated repeatedly that students learn best when they are actively engaged in discovery. We have so many new tools and access to real data and original sources that can foster such learning given a knowledgeable guide, and yet we have too seldom pushed the envelope.
What are some of your favorite moments from your teaching career?
Here are just a few in no particular order: Witnessing my briefcase and the drawers of my desk being surreptitiously stuffed with folded paper cranes. (One of the original ones is pictured at the left.) Meeting with students of the caliber of John Beale,
Elizabeth Hollow, Atul Gawande, and the other members of the
AHS Debate Team in my living room on Sundays to eat popcorn and prepare for upcoming competitions. Feeling pride in my Mock Trial team placing third in the state tournament. Seeing An Lam launch his paper airplane that soared high above the gymnasium floor staying aloft for more than twelve seconds in the district-wide Paper Airplane Contest. Having the opportunity to help design and write the 2001 Science Content Standards for the state of Ohio. Watching students construct and fly hot air balloons that flew all the way to Chauncey. Working with my wife to develop the First Grade/Senior Buddies program where the physics students went over to Morrison Elementary to conduct monthly physics activities with the first graders. Dancing at my wife’s retirement party upon her completing 30 years of teaching grades 1, 2, and 3. Having so many of my top students choose to become teachers; some even returning to teach here at Athens High. Introducing the first computers to the district and using the food service truck to haul rolling carts loaded with those first computers out to elementary schools at night to teach the teachers there how to use them. Helping design and implement the SchoolNet infrastructure that now gives us all access to the Internet. Seeing the way in which the students have worked to improve our Peer Tutoring Program each year. So many favorite moments, so little space.
What is the thing you will miss most about teaching?
Hands down, I will miss the students most. They really are all that counts. And they’re so funny… and charming… and surprising in their insights and talents.
What is the thing you will miss LEAST about teaching?
I will least miss the ever growing burden of answering to the bureaucracy. Because everyone has gone to school they therefore think they know what comprises teaching and learning. For the most part they do not, and yet we who make this practice our profession are increasingly called to meet expectations dictated more by politics than sound educational principles.
What would you go back and change if you could?
Any times I quashed a student’s excitement.
What do you plan to do once you retire?
My wife and I look forward to joining the Athens Village, an organization in which more able seniors assist less able ones to maintain healthy, independent lives. We plan to be more active in service to the food pantry and St. Vincent de Paul committee. We plan to travel in the U.S. and abroad. I, personally, will take up drawing and painting again in a serious way. I want to renew a disciplined study of mathematics using visualization tools like Mathematica. I especially look forward to having more time for reading. Oh, yes, and cooking… and eating.