Spotlight: John Lary (LA '15)February 23, 2016
John Lary (LA '15) thought he wanted to be a college professor, but the connections he made with his teenage students during his first job teaching middle and high school changed his mind. He received his Milken Educator Award at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport on October 27, 2015.
Milken Family Foundation: Who was your most memorable teacher?
John Lary: I'm not sure if I could pick just one — I've had an amazing array of great teachers at different levels and have learned so much about effective teaching from each of them. I have recognized that I am an amalgamation of the traits that I found most effective in the teachers from whom I learned the most.
I had a calculus teacher in high school, Mack Evans, who regularly left math behind and would tell us stories of great thinkers or discuss the election of 1972 or talk about ballet. He was so excited to know things and could not contain it — he had to share his knowledge with us. Two years ago, Mack transferred to the school where I teach. He regularly finds his way to my classroom on his planning period and will burst in excited to share with my students whatever is on his mind.
I had two tough-as-nails history teachers in high school, Thad Pardue and Sharon Buford, who expected so much of their students — more than I thought I had to give. They never accepted less than what they knew I was capable of achieving. I had two college professors, Dr. Brian Etheridge and Dr. David Anderson, who pushed me to think more deeply about the subject of history and the process of research and writing. I could go on and on. In addition to the teachers I had as a student, there are also dozens of colleagues who have inspired me to stick with it and be a constantly improving version of myself.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
John: My first teaching experience was as an adjunct instructor the week after I received my master's. I was 22 and was teaching American history post-1877. I had a few students who were more than twice my age and the rest were within a couple years of me. Taking that leadership role was tough, but I recognized that regardless of my age, I had something to offer them.
A few months after that I got my first job in secondary education at a small private school teaching middle and high school social studies. I had always thought that I wanted to teach at the university level, but the connections I made with the middle and high school students that year made me realize my error. I continued to serve as an adjunct instructor at the university but was surprised to find that the rewards were far greater for me at the secondary level. Seeing the students every day and creating relationships beyond the content inspired me. It was difficult to transition from the master’s program and teaching college seminars to creating projects for eighth-grade Louisiana History, but it was so exciting. One of my administrators, Dr. Naomi Coyle, was incredibly supportive and encouraging as I found my balance.
MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. How do you convince him or her?
John: I believe that the best way to encourage students to pursue a career in education is to show them every day the joy that I find in the work that I do. I have spoken to many students about the incredible reward I find in my career and have offered to many students the opportunity to present "guest lectures" in my classroom where they can get a feel for teaching and we can talk about the work that goes into creating effective teaching.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
John: None of us was expecting that Tuesday to be out of the ordinary. The excitement that my students and colleagues shared with me over winning the award was thrilling. Recognition and validation of the teaching profession is an important message of the Milken Family Foundation and the students certainly heard it. Students, both in my classroom and those I have never met, saw that morning that there is value in what we as educators choose to do every day and that we can make a difference.
MFF: What’s your favorite time of the school day?
John: I can't decide! It might be those times when I am in class discussing content with students and it "clicks" with someone. When a student offers a response that shows deeper, complex understanding of the concepts, there's a palpable excitement on their part and mine. Or it might be when I get to talk to students about topics unrelated to the content I teach, especially coaching them as they prepare for college.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
John: I think I would split the money between a scholarship fund for students who are interested in pursuing history or education as a career and an endowment to bring guest speakers to the school. The history club that I sponsor has been bringing local university professors to our campus for the last few years for guest presentations and many students have said that it has demystified some of the college experience. Hearing professional academics discuss their work not only enlightens and excites the student population, it also encourages intellectual discussion among the students and teachers.
MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
John: I want my legacy to be my passion for education and genuine learning. I hope that my colleagues and students recognize that I love what I do and that I bring that zeal to the classroom and to the school.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
John: I cannot imagine what I would do other than teaching. Maybe it is in my blood — two of my grandparents were lifelong educators. I started college knowing that I would teach and have never regretted it or looked back. I am fortunate to have found my calling and answered it.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…"
John: "…I witness the development of a lifelong passion for thinking and learning in my students." Education is a continual process and I try to instill in my students a zest for knowledge that will stay with them the rest of their lives.
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