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This Colorado history teacher learned an important lesson from an angry father

Nathan Pearsall, a history teacher at Vista Ridge High School, with his students.
Nathan Pearsall, a history teacher at Vista Ridge High School, with his students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Don’t be alarmed if you see wadded up paper flying across history teacher Nathan Pearsall’s classroom at Vista Ridge High School in the Falcon 49 school district in Colorado Springs. It’s probably part of his favorite lesson on the modernization of trench warfare during World War I.

Pearsall’s plan to become a history teacher took shape when he was in 11th grade. He talked to Chalkbeat about the man who inspired him to enter the field, how he earns students’ respect and what he learned from a student’s angry father.

Pearsall is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I come from a long line of educators and I felt it was my calling in life. I had a true moment of enlightenment during my 11th grade AP U.S. History class. My teacher inspired me with his passion for not only the content of the course but also the relationships he built with each student. I knew from that point on that I wanted to pursue a career where I could have a similar impact on students.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a former computer lab in the interior of the school. I have no windows, but make up for that with many maps and student work. I have two whiteboards and a 70-inch television with Apple TV. I have laptop computers available on occasion for the class. Additionally, near my desk I have some pictures and letters from former students as well as my diplomas and comic books so students may see some of my accomplishments and interests.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching about the new technologies of World War I and how the war changed the way war was conducted. The lesson not only describes the many new technologies of modern warfare, it shows the shift from a cavalry that used horses to one that used cars, trucks and tanks.

We also conduct in-class trench warfare using balled-up paper to simulate some of the conditions and strategies used in World War I and demonstrate how ineffective they initially were. We then look at how warfare had to change to adapt to the new technologies so that victory was ensured.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I use many formative assessments and informal checks for understanding in order to gauge the learning of all students for each lesson. When a student doesn’t understand, I encourage self-advocacy and asking questions. I also make sure that I walk around the room and ask probing questions throughout the lessons and especially during individual or group activities to see where the students are in their understanding. I respond as much as I am able and if they are still not getting the material, I talk with colleagues to see what strategies have worked for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We establish a social contract at the outset of the year to ensure that students have an understanding of classroom procedures and expectations. Many of my expectations address problems with off-task behavior preemptively. I use traditional teaching strategies such as proximity to encourage students to get back on task and address the off-task behavior personally with a level of respect that is typically reciprocated.

If it is a classroom issue, I will stand at the front of the room silently until the class is ready to move on. Most students understand when I am ready for their attention and help fellow students get back on track. This mutual respect takes time to build, but is certainly worth it to reduce the disruptions and off task behavior.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students in a variety of ways, including personal conversations and shared stories during individual work time, greeting students at the door, knowing every student’s name and a favorite hobby or interest. I can use this information to better make connections to the content in the class and to make stronger and more respectful relationships throughout the school year. I focus heavily in the first couple of months on getting to know each student in my classes. I also involve myself in as many activities as possible out of school.

I am the Student Council Adviser, which puts me in contact with more students throughout the school. I also make sure to attend students’ sporting events, concerts, plays, etc. so they know that I support them. Just being there for them to see is sometimes enough to build a lasting relationship because students know that you care about them and are interested in what they are passionate about.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I benefitted from a particularly contentious encounter with a parent of a student who was not in my class. In my second year as the Student Council Adviser, a student asked if Student Council could help her put on an event to raise money for children in Japan. Long story short, her father was upset with the seeming lack of promised support that she was receiving and brought it to the attention of my principal without first speaking with me about the issue.

We called a meeting with the father to find out exactly why he was feeling the way that he was. After a 45-minute conversation with my principal and the father, we discovered a solution as well as the reason for his negative feelings regarding the alleged lack of support.

This taught me a couple of very important lessons, 1.) Make sure we are extremely clear in our communication about our ability and willingness to help students outside of Student Council accomplish a desired task and 2.) Many parents are fierce advocates for their children, but typically run on only one perspective: their child’s. I have since not had any problems with parents or family members being upset with me, but that is because I have learned to be proactive and clear in communicating my expectations and expected outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading the collective works of C.S. Lewis. I also enjoy reading comic books and connecting the themes to the historical time period in which they were written — especially older Captain America, Spider-Man, Batman or the Avengers.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Teaching is less about the content and more about the relationships. Students may not care about what you are teaching them, but if they care about you and respect you as an educator, they are much more inclined to succeed in your class.

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