Saturday Teacher Feature: Jeff Cagle

After my first year of teaching, there was a big part of me that just wanted to GIVE UP.  And go get a real job selling vacuum cleaners or training zebras for the circus.  I remember saying, "This job is too easy in some ways and too hard in others."  But after a few times of saying that, I realized it was really a challenge -- and far be it from me to shrink from one of those!

I began massing my resources for the next school year.  The biggest hole by far in my SAT students' knowledge was Geometry, where they simply didn't know the material and weren't willing to work on it. ("I just can't do Geometry.")  I had encountered a pleasant surprise when I took my first practice SAT after almost a decade of Mathlessness and discovered I remembered almost everything, but I still didn't know how to teach it.

So, I did the only sensible thing: I e-mailed Mr. Cagle.

Jeff Cagle taught me for the first time in 8th grade Geometry.  I remember very clearly that it was the first time my parents said, "Sorry, we can't help you with your homework.  We don't understand it either."  I also remember getting tearful more than once (but not in class, of course; I'm not so cruel as my own students) over concepts that I just couldn't seem to grasp.  But somehow, Mr. Cagle was always able to sort it out once we were reviewing the concepts in class.

My best memory of Mr. Cagle has to be two classes later.  I had him for AP Chemistry, and the fact that I passed the test with a 4 attests to his brilliance; I have never been a science person and didn't think I was anywhere near ready for the exam.  But I remember his lessons in Physics better, and in particular one wonderful morning when we walked in to find him sitting on a desk with his guitar over his knees, absentmindedly strumming.

We didn't know what to do; we awkwardly took our seats and tried to chat until the bell, but it was hard to ignore the fact that our teacher was making music in the front of the room.  Just after the bell, he broke into song, and we all just listened.  We'd heard him sing before in chapel and knew he was talented, but hearing him in the classroom was a different, unexpected pleasure.  He finished the first song and seamlessly segued into a short demonstration of frequency and wavelength; showing us how the frets measured the changing sound.  Then he began to play what was probably my favorite song of all time, written by probably my favorite band of all time: U2's "Running To Stand Still."  It was especially meaningful because, after years of dismissing their music, I had just bought Joshua Tree and had a personal epiphany while listening to it.  "This is music I like," I thought.  And now my teacher was playing music I liked in the classroom, instead of teaching from the textbook.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven, except that in heaven I wouldn't have been too self-conscious to harmonize on the chorus.

What was great about this lesson?  Three things: first, he shocked us out of our comfort zones, ensuring that he would have our full attention and that we would remember the experience.  Second, he appealed to us on our level, playing something he thought we might recognize and that wasn't necessarily "Christian." (This was a major issue at that time and place, and he established himself firmly on the side of quality music rather than music with a clear label.)  Third, he really did integrate fun, joy, and wonder into a lesson he would have taught anyway.  We probably learned just as much as we would have in a lecture, but instead of the lecture, we got to enjoy ourselves and learn organically.

Apologies for the long introduction, but I wanted you to get a sense for the kind of teacher you're about to hear from.  Jeff Cagle, of my proud alma mater, Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville:

What do you teach, and how long have you been teaching it?

I've been teaching science and math here for 17 years.  I've also taught Bible and computer programming courses.

Who or what inspired you to teach?

I had wonderful high school teachers and wanted to give back a bit.  My original plan was to teach for five years and then go to seminary.  That morphed into teaching into perpetuity and getting a seminary degree on the side.

What's the toughest thing about teaching?

When you're a student, the goal is 90% correctness, more or less.  When you are a teacher, getting 90% of students to excel is probably not going to happen.  So I had to rethink what "success" meant as a teacher.  More prosaically, I really hate paperwork.

When do you have the most fun while teaching?

I live for the "A-ha" moments.  I even have a mental image of one particular student holding an imaginary light bulb over her head. :)

What one thing do you try to teach all of your students -- the one thing that would enable you to say, "I was a good teacher"?

Hm, that's tough.  I try to teach them not to be afraid of hard things, but they don't know that.  More explicitly, I try to teach them the value of reading in whatever discipline they're working in; the value of clear, logical thinking; and I try to inspire them to experiment a little when stuck.

Any parting thoughts?

I strive to weave my curriculum into a net of a few powerful ideas so that students will be able to accomplish a lot not only this year, but five years hence.

(I heard a curious echo when I read Mr. Cagle's response to the One Thing.  I push those things with my students, too, and I'm sure it's because he pushed me.  I guess it proves that you never know how far your influence might travel -- a thought both wonderful and terrifying.)