The Interview: Tom O’Keefe, A Millennial Teacher

Tom O’Keefe graduated from Villanova University with a major in Communication and a minor in Business. As a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Tom teaches a weekly writing class for high school sophomores, helps with junior college counseling and tutors algebra. He shares his thoughts on the role of technology in the classroom, his teaching philosophy and his experience as a teacher.

What were you like as a student?

I was a very strong student. I was lucky to have very supportive parents, unbelievable teachers in grade school, and a strong Catholic college preparatory high school education. I realized early on what needed to be done to succeed in school and get good grades: do your homework and do it right. After that, studying becomes a heck of a lot easier because you’ve basically already studied it through your homework assignments.

How did you decide to become a teacher?

As I was applying for JVC, I was watching the fourth season of HBO’s The Wire which focuses on urban education. Seeing the students depicted on the show and how the education system failed them inspired me to get involved in urban education for my year of service.

Did your college education prepare you for a teaching career?

At Villanova, I was a Communication major with a minor in business, so, no, not directly, but I did learn a great deal about writing and communicating effectively, skills that will undoubtedly serve me well no matter what field I’m in!

Can you tell us more about your philosophy of teaching?

My philosophy is very much a work in progress, but there are a few things that I consistently try to do. I believe in holding my students accountable for their work and treating them like adults, but also staying positive, hopefully giving them a “can-do” attitude. I also really believe in giving one-on-one tutelage. No one method of teaching or communicating works on every student, so being able to see them individually can really help them to focus and help me to meet their needs. Luckily, I have small classes that allow me to do that! Lastly, I try to stress that students check their work over and over (and over again) to make sure that it’s the best it can possibly be.

How do you measure students’ performance and success?

It depends on the subject. For writing, I look to see whether they followed directions and put in effort, first. After that, I check for grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. Next, I look to see if their piece works as a whole. If all of these things are done well, I consider that a successful assignment. Over time, I look for improvements in each of those areas. For math, I initially give them a lot of feedback, making sure they have all the necessary steps and pay attention to detail. As we go from problem to problem, I give less and less guidance to make sure they can do it on their own. By the end of my tutoring session, I hope that they can move through difficult problems confidently on their own.

Besides lecture, what other methods of teaching do you use?

In my Writing Lab class, I usually do one of a few things. If students have a writing assignment for another class, they use my class time to work on that. I act as a resource for them for clarifications, editing, and proof-reading. If students don’t have a writing assignment to work on, I project grammatically incorrect sentences off of my computer, read it aloud, and have the students type a corrected sentence. Once they’ve finished, we correct the sentence together, go over new vocabulary words, and explain why we made the corrections. Other times, I’ll find a news article that could affect their lives and have them write a few paragraphs on their opinion on the matter. The goal with this is to get students thinking in terms of an argument with proper support.

You mentioned that you use your computer to project grammatically incorrect sentences. How do you use technology in your classroom?

Writing Lab and College Counseling classes are held in the school computer lab, so technology is a big part of my day-to-day. In Writing Lab, students type each of their assignments and I use the projector to show grammatically incorrect sentences for the students to fix. My school uses Google for Business Solutions, so each student has their own e-mail address and account. We use Google Documents so that students can access their work wherever there’s a computer and an internet connection, and they can share their work with teachers without printing. In College Counseling, students are able to use the computers to look up colleges, practice for the SAT and ACT, and find resources for the college application process. Technology is a great tool for us!

What do you think about team projects?

Learning to work as a team is a vital part of any education because most professions require teamwork. I can remember being frustrated with team projects as a student because other students weren’t always dependable or hardworking, but that’s something that students must learn to deal with, too. So, even though I don’t use team projects necessarily, I’m a big believer!

Everyone talks about the fact that Generation Y needs positive reinforcement and rewards in order to perform well. What positive reinforcement methods do you use in your classroom?

With the students that I work with, this is especially important because of inconsistencies at home. School should be a place for young people to learn and grow, and a place where they feel safe. I always try to keep a positive, upbeat attitude that fosters learning. I make sure to give credit where it’s due and encourage students to fulfill their potential. That being said, I am also a firm believer in being truthful with my students so that they can learn what is acceptable and what is not. If I feel that they are lacking in effort, I am not afraid to tell to my students and, conversely, if they give me great work, I tell them that, too. Basically, with high schoolers, it’s important to find a balance between positive reinforcement and challenging students to realize their own potential.

Do you think your students and teenagers in general value education?

Yes, my students definitely value their education. It’s just helping them realize what they need to do to succeed that can be challenging. As a teenager, it can be difficult to come to school everyday, do what you’re supposed to, do your homework, and get good grades when the benefit of that (graduation, college, a job) seems so far off. This can be especially daunting for students from low socio-economic backgrounds because there are so many outside pressures that they encounter on a daily basis. Many of my students will be the first members of their families to attend college, so there’s not always a set path for them to follow. The fact that they attend a college preparatory school is a huge first step!

As far as teenagers in general, some value education and others do not. So much of it depends on the person, their background, and their current influences.

Do students today have more respect for their teachers than previous generations did?

It’s a different kind, but the respect is still there. I can remember my elders talking about their time in school where teachers could wrap their knuckles with a yardstick if they stepped out of line. Teachers ran tight ships back then. Now, (teachers can’t hit their students and) students look at their teachers more as mentors who they can trust. Teachers are more involved in their students lives than ever before. That’s a very positive thing for my students. People who believe in the “old school”, rigid way of teaching would likely look at some modern classrooms and say the students lack respect for their teachers. I disagree. Students still respect their teachers. It’s just a bit different than it used to be. It’s more of a shown mutual respect for each other.

Until two years ago, you were a student yourself. Do you see any significant changes between your attitudes and beliefs toward education and your students’? Do your students write and research in different ways? Do they have a different definition of plagiarism?

I came from a vastly different background than my students entering high school. I was from an upper-middle class, suburban town in Massachusetts where getting a great education was the norm. It’s different for my students. Education wasn’t always stressed to them. College isn’t the norm where they live, it’s the exception. Part of my school’s goal is to make education, coupled with personal growth, the priority.

In terms of writing and research, my students almost exclusively use the internet to look things up that they can’t find in their textbooks. Just like most high school students, they don’t always use the most reputable sources and they sometimes need to learn how to gather information effectively and correctly, but that’s something we’re helping them to learn.

What is the most satisfying moment of your teaching career so far?

Two quick stories. First, I tutored a student in algebra one afternoon, much to her chagrin. She didn’t totally trust me. After class ended, I didn’t think much of it. About a week later, during parent-teacher conferences, she came in with her mother, said hello, and said, “Mr. O’Keefe, I got a hundred on that homework because of you.” I had nearly forgotten about the tutoring session, but she certainly hadn’t, and it was her way of saying, “thanks.” Now, she trusts me to help her. That went a long way for me. Second, one of my more reserved students asked me to edit her paper for an essay contest. She ended up winning the grand prize. She stepped outside of her comfort zone and was successful. I still smile when I think about how proud I am of her.

What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

I think a great teacher is someone who goes the extra mile. The one who makes an extra effort to truly get to know their students and challenges them to go above and beyond themselves. Anyone can teach a chapter of a textbook. It’s what happens before, between, and after those lectures that can truly have an impact.

What do you hope your students will learn from your class?

I hope that they grow as writers and, more importantly, as thinkers. I hope that they learn writing can be their own creation and that it can be a beautiful thing. I doubt they’ll remember everything I try to pass on, but I hope they all remember to take great care in their writing so it can be a tool for them in the future.

Final thoughts?

Teaching is a roller-coaster ride. A lesson or idea for one class may go exceedingly well and flop for another class. One student may exceed expectations while the next under-performs. It’s both satisfying and incredibly frustrating, but it’s all about flexibility, trust, and respecting each other. I truly appreciate my own teachers more than ever now that I’ve been a teacher.

As far as the demographic of student that I work with, we cannot fail them. They really are our future. There are some remarkably bright young people out there who need to be mentored and cared for in order to be challenged to reach their full potential. They have limitless ability and it would be shameful to waste it.

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