Independence Teacher of the Year John Vickers brings a coach's motivational style to his classroom

By Brandon Dumsky

William Chrisman High School social studies teacher John Vickers was chosen as the Independence School District’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

Vickers has been teaching for 25 years, with 16 in the Independence district. He also has coached boys basketball and was previously named as Conference and District Coach of the Year.

His American Government course students have scored the highest in the district on their state end-of-course assessments.

Q: How does it feel being Teacher of the Year?

Vickers: Well, it’s overwhelming. You never imagine something like this happening, knowing there are so many talented teachers out there who did or didn’t get nominated. It’s kind of hard to fathom. It’s been a great experience. Again, I’m overwhelmed and humbled considering the multitude of teachers in the district who also deserve this award.

Q: What makes a teacher great?

Vickers: I think a great teacher is someone who is passionate about their profession. They are passionate about kids and the material they present to teach. A teacher is someone who can make connections and establish relationships with students. They make learning fun, interesting and exciting. Plus they not only have the ability to make connections, but enable students to make connections to the real world; making learning as something that is intuitive and applicable to their lives.

Another thing that I feel strongly about – and I know it sounds cliché – is believing there is a special purpose and plan for each of my students in life. I feel that my job is to help them realize what that might be and identify where they are strong and what they might want to do. It all begins with establishing a relationship with them. I want them to know that they are more than just a number or test score.

Q: Is there anything innovative or unique that you incorporate in your instruction?

Vickers: I try to add something new each year in the curriculum. This year, our district has used data walls to display different levels of data that teachers and students can track test scores or attendance or learning in some capacity. That worked out very well for EOC tests. Then for me as a coach, I treat my test days like game days. My classes are like practices for the big game. For me, teaching is coaching and coaching is teaching. There are parallels that come from sports that help one practice for anything. Every day in class, I compare it to practice for games by doing drills.

On a test day or “game day,” I get dressed up in a suit and have a pre-game speech to motivate or play a motivational clip before students go out and take a test. I treat it like coaching a game. They have gotten into that and it’s fun.

Q: As a teacher for 25 years, what advice do you have for beginning or aspiring educators?

Vickers: One thing I think everyone needs to have is a sense of humor; the ability to laugh at yourself. I think that’s high on the list. Get on a level with your students and be relatable is really important. One thing I wish I done from the very beginning is to keep a journal of your entire teaching career because you’re going to have so many amazing stories. These stories will make you happy and celebrate your choice as an educator. Some will make you sad because you see where some kids come from and what they endure. Others are these “ah-ha!” moments and some are “Wow, I can’t believe that happened.”

One particular story that stands out was a student I made an impact on the basketball court. During his senior year, he saw limited action as a reserve. He had a grandpa he was very close with and given a limited amount of time to live. This player told me one night that his grandpa was going to come out to one of his games. He was excited about this – even knowing that he may not play a whole lot. But it didn’t matter to him.

A couple of days before the game I decided that he would start in our home game that his grandpa was going to attend. I knew it would be special for him, but I didn’t realize just how special until recently. I remember telling him that he was going to start and he just got a big grin on his face. He gave me a huge bear hug and whispered in my ear, “Thank you so much, Coach.”

When I went upstairs for warm-ups before the game, I saw his grandpa right behind our bench in a wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen and looking very frail. What I will never forget is when Clay’s name was called as a starter. He went directly over to his grandpa and gave him a big hug and gave him the little basketball that all the starters got to throw out to fans when they go through the player line as their name is called.

Recently I saw this student and he told me just how much that night meant to him and thought of it often. His grandpa just passed away a few weeks after the game. I never knew how much putting him as a starter meant to him, his grandpa and his family.

I also tell young teachers that it’s really good to be flexible and there is always going to be change. They need to be able to adapt. It could be adapting to a new generation of kids or new teaching practices, as well as district changes. You just need to be flexible. There is always going to be change and you have to know what’s coming.

Q: Do you plan on sticking with teaching, or are you wanting to pursue an administrative position?

Vickers: I know I will remain a teacher. Teaching and coaching are my callings in life. It is not a job to me. It is something, I believe, that is part of God’s plan in my life. It’s why I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have the honor and responsibility of this special recognition.

I know I just have a few years left in my career and to serve those out as a teacher. It’s something that I love. Every day is different and exciting. I am going to keep on doing it.