A teacher all about relationships

by | Aug 2022

GENERALLY SPEAKING, one of the most dramatic periods of a person’s life happens during the adolescent years when the prefrontal cortex of the brain region (responsible for things like planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses) has not yet finished developing. Thus, teen spirit rolls through school hallways like thick cumulus clouds, manifesting through sassy eye-rolling, rule-bending, and combative attitudes. If anyone ever had the opinion that teachers do not get paid enough, here would be an additional moment to reiterate that idea.

Luckily, despite glaring challenges, our school system is filled with kind and compassionate teachers who feel called and equipped to step in and offer leadership to our teenagers during these impressionable years. Parker Gunn is one of those exemplary teachers.

Gunn recently finished his fifth year teaching at Coffee County Central High School (CCCHS). Ironically, when he set out after high school, he initially went to college to pursue a degree in accounting. However, after coaching a youth travel baseball team one summer, Gunn had a change of heart that ultimately led him to change his life trajectory. After the summer league ended, Gunn changed his major and field of study to education. Gunn’s aspiration to go into education was positively confirmed when he was able to go into real classrooms the following semesters to observe and student teach. Though coaching was the initial spark that caught Gunn’s attention, the possibility of becoming a coach was less of the focus and became more of a cherry on top of his new professional plan.

Fresh out of college, Gunn had many different job offers as a math teacher. He had verbally committed to go back to his hometown of Shelbyville and teach. As fate would have it though, Gunn was required to go to a job fair due to his college graduation requirements. There at the job fair, Gunn shares, “the former CCCHS principal was chasing me around begging me to come to the school.” Gunn thought to himself, “Man, maybe God wants me to go there. Maybe that is God trying to get my attention.” By the time he finished walking and touring CCCHS, Gunn had already signed a contract. In retrospect, Gunn stated, “I feel like it was a God decision, and He had placed it on my heart to go there. Now I believe I’ll retire here years from now.”

Photographed by Ashleigh Newnes.

As a young algebra teacher and assistant baseball coach, many could speculate that Gunn is one of the stereotypical “young and fun” teachers within the school system. While that may be true, it is also true that Gunn has a lot of heartfelt and strategic intentions behind his jolly demeanor. Gunn shared, “Students who have me know that I am lighthearted and like to share my humor, sing, and do funny stuff. I like to have conversations before we begin each class. I think that was something that was missing from my experience in school. I never really developed a relationship with teachers that I felt comfortable enough to have casual conversations with and get to know and trust.” All of these seemingly unrelated moments described above do not directly relate to math but instead reflect Gunn’s teaching style, which is very relational in nature.

Gunn shared that he is not a strict teacher. Instead, he emphasizes developing positive relationships with students. “My mindset is that if I form enough of a relationship with students, they will want to do good for me, and they are disappointed in themselves when they don’t please me or achieve what I asked of them.” Putting this emphasis on developing a positive and respect-filled relationship with students has been successful for both Gunn and students. Gunn shares, “I see kids wanting to learn, do their work, follow the rules, and do well on state testing–all things that don’t always matter to high school students.”

At the beginning of each new class, Gunn sets the standard with all of his students, sharing his teaching philosophy, “Learning is doing.” Gunn shares, “Students know that for 180 days, every day when they walk into my classroom, they are going to do the math. The expectation is that they will do more math than I will. I always say that I want to be able to introduce them to the math and investigate problems together, but the only way for them to learn is to do it themselves consistently and in a hands-on manner. When you develop that as the expectation from the beginning, students don’t complain about it anymore because they know that is what we are going to do. They respect that somebody shows up to work every single day and does exactly what they say they were going to do.”

Gunn believes the way his classroom impacts the world most directly isn’t necessarily related to the content and specific math problems being taught but rather the principles being taught in the midst of it all. He shares, “A lot of the content we do teach is applicable to the real world, but it’s not exactly necessary to survive in the real world. However, the critical thinking skills, collaborative thinking skills, and being given something that’s difficult and having to learn it in small pieces until we create a bigger picture are things that students will carry over into life after high school.”

Similar to the aim of newer Common Core methods, Gunn’s hope for his students when they leave his classroom is to be able to create alternate ways of thinking when problem-solving in everyday life. He shared, “We don’t want to teach students how to just compute 10×18 by carrying ones and zeros. We want students to understand that 10×18 is 10 sets of 18 or 18 sets of 10. We want students to be able to do math mentally.” Similarly, Gunn’s desire for students is to be able to leave his classroom and feel confident when facing more significant problems at home or in the world. He wants them to know that they can break the problem down into smaller pieces until they can conceptualize the whole.

Though there has been much public pushback regarding Common Core math standards, Gunn pleads for community support within the math classrooms. He shares, “We see the community talk on Facebook about how teaching math has changed. It is different because it’s intended to create alternate ways of thinking. It will cause more difficulty and struggle, but if teaching and learning aren’t causing struggle, then chances are it wasn’t worth learning in the first place. So please give the schools and the teaching methods your support. Then, if after continued support you still don’t see the results you would like to see, we can look at other methods. But we teachers, administrators, and schools need your support more than ever.” GN

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