Sheffield teachers

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Photo by Michele Murphy

Jack Berckemeyer, center in white shirt, sits among Sheffield-Sheffield Lake staff members, swapping stories about kids and exhorting them to be positive, caring influences on their students.

SHEFFIELD VILLAGE – Jack Berckemeyer told Sheffield-Sheffield Lake teachers and staff last week that he was a C and D student and did so poorly on his college entrance exams that the counselor cried when she handed him the results.

He used examples from his own life in a high-energy, humorous presentation during the district's professional development day to stress how and why teachers make a difference for their students.

Berckemeyer told them he was unfazed and remained determined to pursue his goal of becoming a teacher, something he decided to do as a kid, largely influenced by teachers he had.

He attended community college for a year then transferred to a university. He eventually became a middle school teacher and earned recognition as an outstanding educator. He went on to be assistant executive director for the National Middle School Association for 13 years. Today, he teaches teachers how deliberate optimism can make all the difference in the life of a student, or for that matter, a teacher.

"Here's the deal," he said as he launched into his presentation promising no discussion of testing or state and federal mandates. "I get to say everything you think." It generated a round of chuckles.

"The hardest part of working in a school is the adults, not the kids," he told them.

"There's going to be 'that one teacher'," he said, quickly adding, "You can't change them unless they're wearing Depends," which caused a burst of laughter as he told them to focus on what they can change.

He openly questioned why education moved to memorization instead of making memories, recalling the impact some teachers had on him.

He asked them why people get fired, noting it often is the result of how well people got along with colleagues or whether they fit in with the team. "There's no rubric for that," he said referencing the method teachers use to assess student progress on state-mandated subjects like math, science and reading.

He stressed the importance of building social-emotional skills for students, noting how some struggle to look an adult in the eye or have a conversation with an adult.

Berckemeyer admitted he had one other steady support that helped him get where he is today – his dad. Throughout his life, his father, now 97, has written him more than 4,000 letters. Each one ended the same way: "I love you, I believe in you and I want the best for you."

After telling his own touching story, he reminded the teachers they may be the most stable person in the lives of children and teens, some of whom face neglect, hunger, divorce, cancer, death, eviction, job loss or physical or emotional abuse. "Things no child should ever experience," he said.

"Ten-year olds don't cause problems. Adults who act like 10-year-olds do," Berckemeyer said. He told teachers to quit worrying about things they cannot change and focus on the 6½ hours they spend with their students each day. "Start by saying ‘Hello,’ " he said, emphasizing that the greeting should be extended to all kids, not just those in their classes. "Give them an adult who cares."

Throughout the one-hour presentation, he demonstrated how to hold a group's attention by repeatedly relating funny stories about his own teaching experience, which left them in stitches and wiping away happy tears. He stressed the importance of having fun while teaching and learning.

"When you have a bad day, go laugh," he said, re-emphasizing his earlier message of controlling what's controllable.

After the presentation, Stephanie Hill Blythe, a third-grade teacher and president of Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Teachers Association, said, “It’s easy to get caught up in the stresses of high-stakes testing, but Jack Berckemeyer’s message helped reaffirm our desire to put kids first.

"Connecting with our students and making school a safe and enjoyable place to be is the primary goal of our teachers. When our students feel cared for and supported, academic achievement follows naturally.”

Superintendent Mike Cook weighed in as well.

"Jack helps teachers remember that teaching is all about helping kids, not just teaching to a test,” he said. “He specializes in building relationships and mentoring students through adult/teacher support. This will help our teachers' efforts on a day-to-day basis."

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