John Laystrom, Illinois

John Laystrom, 42, became a teacher later in life and has discovered a passion he never knew he had.

"I never thought that I was going to be a teacher. I was talking with my mom after my second year of teaching, and she said, 'Oh, I always knew you’d be a teacher!' and I’m like, 'How come you didn’t tell me that earlier?'

"I started late. I was doing technology sales, selling software and hardware to Fortune 500 companies, but then the technology bubble burst and I got out. I was kind of disillusioned with the whole thing and had a very supportive and loving wife and stayed home and played Mr. Mom for four years. During that time, my kids were young and I began coaching my daughter's softball team and I just had a blast with it. They were seven and eight years old and it was such fun watching them develop and get better and have fun with the game and I never really thought about it until somebody came up to my wife after a game and said, 'What’s John doing?' and she said, 'Keeping me happy.' And they said, 'Have you ever thought of coaching or teaching?'

"And that was like the first time it ever occurred to me! I was like, 'Wow, what a concept!' So I decided to go back and get my Masters and then the rest is kind of history; I’ve been teaching math to seventh and eighth graders for the last three years.

"Some of the challenges, especially in math, are that they never see themselves using it at a later date. Coming from a technology world, I talk to them all the time about how lucky they are to be growing up in this era when they have their cell phones and their MP3 Players and computers and text messaging and all that stuff. I stress to them that it’s all built on math, but they have a very hard time realizing that. So I get a lot of business magazines and technology magazines and I cut out articles and read them to them. Every now and then I wait for a day when they go, 'When will we use this?' And we put away everything and we just talk the rest of the period about when they will use it and how important numbers are and that everything is built on numbers. One of my favorite articles is about Google and those guys that are now multi billionaires, and the role math played in their success.

"I also like having fun and I goof around with the kids all the time. I mean, I’ll try to throw in as many jokes as I can about what we're learning and that’s the way that I try to hook them into it and to actually like it. Because I’ve been through my fair share of boring classes where the instructor just tells you what to do, so I try to involve them, I use a lot of technology in my lessons, and try to get them to understand that it’s important that they show all their steps and do all their checks and get the right answer and not just try to get it done.

"I was lucky enough this year to get an interactive white board in my room that I can use as an extension of my PC. I bring in video clips of funny things that I find, whether it’s math-related or not. And I have these little voters -- it's a gadget that looks like a little egg timer -- and I pass them out and they sit with them and I put a question up on the board and they do the math and put in what they think is the right answer and I can see the results immediately. If 90 percent of the class is getting the answer right, I can move on, and if they're not getting it right I can go back and repeat.

"I wasn’t the best student in school, myself, and it didn’t matter what class I was in, if a teacher called on me, I froze, so I totally understand that whole concept of a kid freezing. But numbers always came easy to me, though it wasn’t like I really, really loved going to math class, and that’s what I’m trying to show these kids now: that it’s really not that bad. It's tough, but as long as they work hard, then they can master it and they can have success in it.

"I also coach a girl’s softball team up there, and my biggest enjoyment is seeing these kids learn something, both inside and outside the classroom. I go watch the kids play different sports and I like seeing them in those different environments. It really makes me happy that I can be a part of their life and they can look at me as, one, a role model, and two, as someone who cares about them. I’ve gotten a lot of comments from parents, saying, 'Thank you so much for taking an interest in my child, not just teaching them, but taking an interest in them.' I really do enjoy that part of it.

"Eighth grade is time to buck up and start taking a little bit of responsibility for your actions, but a lot of these kids have been bailed out so many times that they don’t know how to be responsible. Some of these kids, if they don’t try, I’ll give it a couple of chances, but I’m also not a hand holder. I think I need to prepare them for high school and beyond. So I’ll give them a couple of chances, I’ll make sure they know I’m available, but a lot of these kids aren’t even willing to jump on that. With 130 kids, seeing them only 46 minutes a day and most of that time is instruction, it’s hard to really connect with them. If the kid tries and is struggling, I’ll do anything for them, but they need to learn responsibility and they need to to learn that success comes from hard work. I feel like I’m doing the right thing, though I feel bad about it sometimes, because I'm really not flexible on the rules. I mean, here are my rules, you know them up front, you know this is what I expect of you, so go do it and I’ll be there for you if you are trying. That’s just the way I was brought up: my parents were very supportive of me, but also had high expectations.

"I just love teaching. I'm really, really happy with it. I make about half as much as I used to, but that doesn’t bother me, I get so much enjoyment from dealing with these kids. I teach real close to where I live so I run into them all the time. It’s just fun that way. I like having fun in the classroom, they look at me as being a fun person, but I also talk to them about the other side, about respect and that stuff. I’m not their friend, but I'm a supporter of theirs as long as they work hard!"


©Zina Saunders 2008–2014