Coffee Break: Tom Rademacher on His New Book, the Moment He Wanted to Teach and Getting Hit by a Deer

Apr 19, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Michael Vaughn

“Mr. Rademacher will do anything in his power to help his students succeed.” One of Tom Rademacher’s students wrote that about him in a nomination for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, which he won in 2014. His new book, “It Won’t Be Easy,” comes out April 25. He wrote it “because I often feel like I’m on an island as a teacher,” he explains in the introduction. Like his profession, he’s both uplifting and demanding. Is teacher's lounge coffee a thing? Or does everyone bring their own? Do you take a coffee mug to first period? The teacher’s lounge in every school I’ve ever worked is always the emptiest room in the building. The idea that a school would provide coffee to their staff is sweet and dreamy and wonderful. I haven’t seen it happen. Every year, I’ve had a coffee pot in my room, which has always been against the rules. Part of my morning routine is to come into school, make a pot of coffee and get caught up on emails and planning. My favorite coffee mug is one a student made for me before she graduated. It has a big cut-out of a deer on it to commemorate the time a deer hit me while I was biking to school one day. Talk about your education and background. Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be a teacher? I had a creative writing teacher in high school who made me want to teach. Writing had been my thing for a while, and I was so excited to get to his class. I had this book of awful, awful poetry I’d been writing over my freshman year in an attempt to impress girls, and those poems meant everything to me. When he announced we would be starting with poetry, a group of kids groaned and he said, “I know, I know, I hate poetry too, but the school says we have to learn it.” That was the first day I thought about being a teacher. I'm not sure teaching should be easy. The really important stuff rarely is. But it should be easier. By that I mean, less stressful and taxing. How can we get there? It has to start with trusting teachers about 1000 percent more than we do right now. Look, if the hardest parts of my day are the students, great. That’s a good day. That’s the part that’s supposed to be challenging, that’s the challenge I signed up for. If the hardest part is bad curriculum I’m forced to teach or adult drama or, frankly, any adult I work for thinking they approach in any way the importance of the students in my room, it’s a bad day. Adults are exhausting and disappointing, especially when they have no idea what they’re talking about and still get to tell you what to do. How much of teaching is technique and how much is tenacity? There’s a lot of words I would put before either of these two. Teaching is about art and instinct, and about patience and flexibility and creativity. At least for the first half of a school year, it’s about building trust and learning what each of your students needs to move them from whatever Point A they’re at to whatever Point B they need to get to. Then you can get to work; then it’s technique and tenacity. What piece of writing/literature have you had the most fun discussing with your students? That’s a tough one. “Kindred” by Octavia Butler is amazing, and the discussions that came from it with students were the things teachers dream about when working with kids. “DayTripper” by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon is a book every high school should teach, and kids would stay after school to analyze it with each other. Kids who weren’t in my class would hear about that book from their friends and ask me to borrow a copy. What do you read for fun? I read what my students recommend, because I like talking about books with them. Right now, it’s the book “Tasting the Sky” by Ibtisam Barakat, which is a memoir about the Six-Day War. Before that it was “Magnus Chase,” which is about Viking gods living in the modern world, and before that it was “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe,” which is a gorgeous coming-of-age novel about two boys falling in love. Other than one year that involved more novels about submarines than I would have thought possible, the kids have almost never steered me wrong.

Michael Vaughn

Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until Arne Duncan’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009. Mike then served for five years as the Chief Communications Officer for the Denver Public Schools, a national leader in ed reform.

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