Last spring, high school English teacher Tom Rademacher became Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He still seems a little amazed he’s even a teacher.
“I hated high school!” he exclaims. “Didn’t connect to it—didn’t go to classes, prom, commencement… Growing up I never envisioned myself teaching in a high school.”
But Rademacher had many outstanding teachers in his life, including his mom and grandmother. He graduated and came to the University of Minnesota, where he thought he might prepare to be a writer.
“I met my first really great teacher at the University in an English class,” Rademacher remembers. “I watched as he sipped water from a tin cup, closed his eyes, and listened to us. We read our awful stuff and he listened. Michael Dennis Browne convinced me that teaching is as beautiful and impossible as writing is.”
Rademacher completed his bachelor’s degree in English and went on for licensure in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Then, just three days after he started the program, his father died unexpectedly, turning him into a student he’d rather not remember.
“I was angry and horrible,” he admits. “But—one of my professors taught me that our humanity is our most powerful tool as a teacher.”
It was a lesson Rademacher learned again in different ways at each step to becoming a teacher himself. Now he works with beginning teachers in his own classes. Recently, he had the opportunity to co-teach with a teacher candidate.
“It was probably the biggest semester of growth I’ve had as a teacher—having to explain dumb decisions!” he laughs.
For the past eight years, Rademacher has taught English at FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis, which is part of the West Metro Education Program—an arts school in a district dedicated to integration. At FAIR he has become a dedicated teacher valued by his students, who call him Mr. Rad. An energetic guy with glasses, a beard, and an easy smile, he says he is still learning every day. Culturally relevant pedagogy is an example.
“You need to know where you’re centered in that work,” he says. “Like a lot of white men, I over-intellectualized it. Then I gave the kids the mike in talking about race and privilege. They teach me so much more than I teach them. There should not be a teacher in a classroom who is not thinking about how race has affected them.”
A student nominated Rademacher for Teacher of the Year, an annual award for public, private, and parochial school teachers given by Education Minnesota, the 70,000-member teachers’ union.
The award does not come with time off but with a $6,000 stipend—which probably can’t even cover Rademacher’s travel expenses because he is taking his message to groups and communities all over the state, after school and on weekends. He has written opinions and articles. He urges people who care about education to focus on shared goals and points to schools, districts, and organizations that are leading the way. Students must be the top priority.
“It takes all of us!” he says. “For me, it meant growing up with people like my mom, a lot of great teachers, and so many people who came together to make, in my case, a successful teacher. I want to make sure my experience is not a happy accident.”
Rademacher also urges support for teachers, especially beginning teachers, who come to the profession because they believe it is a craft that can make a difference, who need voices of support and inspiration in their ears to teach boldly. He gave a TEDx talk about the concept of “flipping” tenure, giving protection to teachers in their first years.
“There are great humans out there who need great humans to be their teachers,” he says.
Social media have given Rademacher an even bigger platform than he expected as Teacher of the Year. Before school started last fall, he knew that his students would want to talk about the recent death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and they did. Then in November, the day after a grand jury decision not to indict the officer, student after student spoke up during discussion in his class.
“The kids were nailing it, and then one of them said, ‘Someone should tweet this,’ and phones started coming out, and I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Rademacher says. He started taking notes and sending the students’ words out on Twitter.
Suddenly over the loudspeaker, the class heard his name called to the office.
“They looked at me and we’re all thinking, ‘Uh-oh,’” says Rademacher, “and on the way to the office I’m thinking, ‘How much trouble could I be in if I’m Teacher of the Year?’ but I was still worried! I got there and it was literally a couple of minutes before it sunk in that I wasn’t in trouble.”
The principal told him they were getting calls from local and national media, which were seeing his tweets and wanted to schedule time to talk to him. “It’s fantastic,” he told Rademacher.
The worst thing, Rademacher thought at the time, was Thanksgiving break interrupting the classroom discussions. But it didn’t matter after all. The empowerment his students experienced was real and lasting. One student, for example, has received a writing fellowship as a result.
Pushback has not been a serious problem. For one thing, Rademacher recognizes that his race and gender help him avoid a lot of scathing responses.
“And I am very lucky that I’m in a school that supports me,” he says. “But for the record, I’d do it anyway.”
Learn more about the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Story by Gayla Marty | February 2015