English and journalism teacher Chris Holmes of Hazelwood West High School in Hazelwood, Missouri, is the second Truman graduate to receive the Missouri Teacher of the Year award. From changing his major to finding his path to education, Holmes is one proud Bulldog.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I grew up in Canton, Missouri, where my father taught literature and composition at Culver-Stockton College. I went to Culver-Stockton for my first three semesters of college before transferring to Truman (Northeast Missouri State at the time).
Q: What made you choose Truman?
A: During my three semesters at C-SC, I realized that I wanted to write. Truman seemed to offer more opportunities for that, so I transferred and immediately began working part time in the sports information office under the guidance of Bill Cagle. He was extremely tough on my writing, an experience for which I will always be grateful.
Q: What was your major, besides Master of Arts in Education?
A: I played around with a lot of majors during my first two years of college, but eventually landed on journalism. I was planning on a lifetime of writing, covering news from every corner of the world. Then my advisor, Les Dunseith [also a Truman grad], asked me to present a session on news writing to prospective students during High School Journalism Day. At the time I had barely considered a teaching career, but I agreed to present the session anyway, only because my mentor asked me to. That’s when it happened – when I was speaking to this group of wide-eyed teenagers. Something clicked. Then sparked. Then caught fire. That utterly unique feeling of connecting with kids has been burning ever since. The next day, I changed my major to education. There was no MAE program at Truman when I graduated.
Q: What were your first reactions when you found out you won this award?
A: When you receive an honor such as this I think the first reaction is surprise, which is quickly followed by “I don’t deserve this.” There are so many excellent teachers here at Hazelwood West, let alone throughout the state.
Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?
A: I grew up watching my father teach college literature and composition. During every small-town summer in northeast Missouri, Dad taught a Mark Twain seminar in our formal room at home. Throughout the school year, he let me tag along on field trips out of town and to performances on campus — to sporting events, art shows and formal receptions. I grew up surrounded by teachers, students and education. I remember the difference Dad made for those young adults, and although I had no idea at the time, watching him change lives was also changing mine. There were two high school teachers, as well – with two entirely different teaching styles – who influenced my eventual career choice: Mary Ellen Wheeler [algebra and calculus] and Bill Berry [band and music theory]. Although their personalities were quite different, they were identical in how they approached and loved students. Both held high standards, slightly higher than each of us held for ourselves, but not too high for us to achieve with practice, patience and perseverance. Both knew when it was appropriate to laugh, when it was necessary to discipline and when it was time to work our tails off. We worked harder for these two teachers than we did for all of the others combined, because we didn’t want to disappoint them and because we didn’t want to disappoint ourselves. To this day, I tear up thinking about the impact they made on me, the impact they made on thousands of children, mostly poor country kids in our small town. Then at Truman State, Les Dunseith instilled in me a passion for knowledge and a drive to share that knowledge. Most importantly, he taught me how to accomplish this so that everyone could understand, from the intellectually challenged to the highly educated.
These series of fortunate events – the childhood experiences with Dad, the formative years with Mrs. Wheeler and Mr. Berry and the intensive instruction from Mr. Dunseith – have melded to create another teacher, someone who every day tries to emulate those who inspired him.
Q: What is your basic philosophy on teaching?
A: Ever present in my classroom is a feeling of worth. I strive to help all of my students realize their value. Potential, too, but that comes later. I believe that people must first value themselves before they can ever meet their full potential. I attempt to foster this within every child I encounter. It begins with noticing them. I see my kids, all of them. They see that I see them and they love it. For some students, it is the first time they feel noticed, recognized or acknowledged in years. My personal feelings and beliefs about teaching revolve around this premise — when students feel noticed and valued, they are more willing to work, learn and show respect to both their classmates and themselves. Think about our own jobs, our own working environments. Are adults any different? Regardless of our age, experience or position, when we feel noticed and valued we are more willing to work, learn and show respect. An ability to create this type of atmosphere for all students not only allows teachers to maximize their students’ learning potential, but it also allows them to help mold students into productive and compassionate citizens.
Q: What is the most important thing a teacher should keep in mind?
A: Illogical patience — the act of being patient beyond logic — should be extended to every student. Apply it not just occasionally, but every day at school. Every period, every second. No grudges and no ultimatums. It is remarkable the difference it makes, not just in developing relationships with students, but also in fostering a healthy learning environment.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to future educators?
A: Listen. Watch. Ask questions. Love. The opportunities for teaching and learning will blossom. Be prepared, know your stuff and share it with enthusiasm and passion. And always be willing to forgive. Always.