The Ottumwa Courier

August 13, 2013

'Teaching is part performance art'

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Two longtime Ottumwa High School teachers have advice for new teachers, wisdom they've gained from decades of working with students.

OHS physical education teacher Mary Orman has earned her No. 1 spot on the school's seniority list, entering her 39th year of teaching next week.

"I can still remember like it was yesterday the first class I walked into," she said. "I can tell you exactly what the students were wearing that day."

Orman hasn't been lazy in her nearly four decades of teaching. She's coached the girls' swim team, assisted with girls' track and tennis, led student council and much more.

"I look back over these last 38 years ... and every opportunity allowed or offered to me has been such a tremendous learning experience," she said. "Even at this point, there are so many things I want to learn how to do, so much training."

Teachers need to stay curious and excited about their jobs, she said, otherwise they'll become stale.

OHS chemistry teacher Kevin McGinity agreed, noting that teachers have to keep their sense of humor and be patient.

"Part of being good at something is always being suspicious that you're not," he said. "Good teaching, like anything else, looks easy."

McGinity begins his 24th year of teaching next week and said being a good teacher is a balancing act. Treat your students with respect even if you're not getting respect from them, he said. Prepare your lesson plans far in advance.

"Things should be planned out to where you're anticipating what's going to happen every five, 10, 15 minutes," he said. "When I started — and I still do this sometimes — it's down to knowing what I'm going to say when.

"Teaching is part performance art. Performance art is one of the best things to compare it to, and it took me awhile to realize that. It's not that you're acting, it's not that you're putting on a show. But if it's hard to enjoy, it's tough to come to work."

Teachers need to stay involved and "never become complacent," Orman said.

"There's no way any adult can stay in education for any length of time if they didn't like kids," she said.

While some students feel like their teachers are on their case all the time, that's a good thing, she said, because it means the teacher cares.

"You better hope we stay after you," she said.

The goal for each student is not subject-specific, McGinity said.

"The goals for students are the same goals for myself: to communicate effectively, to work as part of a team, to be persistent," he said. "It's a funny thing to say but it's true in anything — you have to embrace work. You need to try to get as much pleasure as you can out of whatever you happen to be doing. If the teacher isn't enjoying themselves, the students probably won't be. The flip side is if you're having too good of a time, then learning probably is not going on."

If a student doesn't want to be in your classroom, nothing else you do matters, McGinity said. Part of that is realizing when something doesn't work and changing it.

"This is different than any other job I've ever had," he said. "Most jobs have a routine that's daily or weekly. Teaching really is different every single day, actually it can be every single period."

McGinity said he worked in labs as a chemist and has even worked as a fry cook, bus boy, dishwasher and pizza deliverer before he became a teacher.

Certain memories come to the forefront as he reflected on his career: one student standing up and saying "I got it! I got it! I got it!" during a chemistry math lesson, others stopping him at gas stations or restaurants to ask about "Mole Day," and one former student calling him from his dorm room for help with a chemistry problem.

"It's the interaction with students and knowing that the students are understanding either the concepts or processes you're trying to get across is really what this is all about," he said. "You don't learn any particular thing during life so you can use it later on. Most of what you learn you learn to become a more informed person who can problem solve in novel situations because that's what your life is.

"You learn things not necessarily to apply them later but to broaden how much you're able to do."

While Orman has thought of retirement, she's going to take it a year at a time.

"I've always been very fortunate to love what I do," she said. "I have a very strong affinity for OHS."

She's watched countless teenagers grow up right in front of her, she said, but she's grown up, too.

"If I'd only known then what I know now, I think how my students would have benefited," she said. "But that's how you know you're wiser and better at your craft. Age is a state of mind."

This is an exciting time to be in the health and wellness field, she said, with skyrocketing obesity rates. OHS is one of the few high schools in the state that offers P.E. every day, she said, and it shows in the students, who have demonstrated marked improvements.

"Everyone has a horror story of P.E., back in high school or middle school," she said. "Part of my goal has always been to negate those old stereotypes of what P.E. used to be, because it's different now. Not only is it different, it's better."