Teaching: The Joy of Continuous Learning
With forty-four years of teaching under his belt, Ernest Sehringer has gained a bird’s eye view of the ever-changing educational system. Born on July 9, 1939, Sehringer claims East Orange, New Jersey, as his birthplace, hometown, and start of both his own schooling and his career in education. Without attending kindergarten, he began first grade at The Clark School, a private institution. At this time, his parents also took him to a speech therapist every other week in order to get rid of a speech impediment he had. Sehringer entered the public Ashland Elementary School for fifth grade. Due to overcrowding in the schools, the eighth graders were split and sent to the two East Orange high schools—Clifford Scott and East Orange High School. Sehringer enjoyed his early entrance into the East Orange High School environment. His high school yearbook caption reads, “Towering, affable Ernie likes baseball, music, soccer, everything in fact, but peanuts—we’re sure his future will be successful—truly a gentleman.” After graduating from EOHS in 1957, he entered the now extinct Upsala College in East Orange as a math major. In his last semester at Upsala, he decided that he wanted to become a math teacher.
In September of 1961, Sehringer began his teaching career at The Carteret School, a private all-boys boarding school in East Orange. He taught there for a year before he began a job at The Kimberly School, a private all-girls school in Montclair. The school became co-ed and known as The Montclair Kimberly Academy in the last of his four years at the school. During these early years of his career, Sehringer also attended Montclair State College to obtain his Master’s degree in teaching (which he completed in 1972). In September of 1966, he took a job teaching math and computer science at Columbia High School, Maplewood’s public secondary school. During his thirty-four years at Columbia, Sehringer also taught math in the evening at Upsala College and New Jersey Institute of Technology. He took a study sabbatical during the 1985-1986 school year in order to enroll in computer science courses. In June of 2000, he retired from public school teaching.
After receiving a job offer from Nyack College in New York, Sehringer taught four courses a semester and began work on his doctorate at NJIT in the fall of 2000. Both of these endeavors lasted only a year as Nyack wanted him to work full-time on his doctorate while continuing to teach his four courses and maintain his normal daily schedule. Sehringer moved his work back to Livingston, New Jersey, where he taught at Newark Academy for a year. He has now found a home teaching math at Timothy Christian School in Piscataway.
Sehringer credits two past experiences that led to his decision to teach. His first memory dates back to when he was in high school. He had two math teachers that made the lessons come alive for him. “They had a very relaxed way of interacting with the students,” said Sehringer. “They were firm, fair, and friendly.” The other memory occurred in his last semester of college when he was tutoring two international students from Kenya. Sehringer enjoyed his time helping others understand different material and decided that teaching was a great way to continue this passion. He has never regretted his decision to become a teacher.
As many other teachers will admit, Sehringer’s first year as a teacher was his hardest. He felt that he was naïve about the type of environment a private boarding school would have. Half of the students were commuters, and the other half lived in the dormitories. “A lot of them came from broken homes,” says Sehringer. “They had deep psychological issues and acted out their aggression on the teachers.” At the end of his career at the school, two students gained access to sulfuric acid and a teacher’s dorm, in which they poured the acid all over the gentleman’s belongings. These types of discipline problems surprised Sehringer on a daily basis. His second hardest year came when he made the transition from private school to the public Columbia High School. The classes were larger, and the student population was more diverse in their behavior and backgrounds.
Sehringer loves the classroom environment that he currently has at Timothy Christian School. “I will have students come up to me at the end of class and say, ‘Thank you for a great class today,’” he explains. Their work ethic far exceeds the work ethic of even the highest level classes he taught at Columbia. Although he feels that the schools and the students’ work ethic have changed over the years, Sehringer admits that his support network never changed. He did not have mentor, but he credits his colleagues as the foundation of an enjoyable teaching career. “At Columbia, there were twenty-four teachers in the math department,” he says. “I could bounce ideas off of them and get new teaching techniques and feedback.” Also at Columbia, his teaching practices never met any roadblocks. The math department was willing to let the teachers try new ideas as long as the chairman had confidence in that particular teacher.
Although he is retired from public school teaching, Sehringer has formed his own views on issues that he faced as a teacher and that the educational system is facing today. With educators rethinking the existence of tenure, Sehringer supports retaining this policy. “It was great to have it and not worry about job security,” he says. In all his years of teaching, he saw only a small number of isolated incidents where a teacher was not performing to his or her fullest capacity. He never observed a widespread abuse of tenure.
In regards to No Child Left Behind, Sehringer supports this endeavor half-heartedly. “The overall goal is great because there is too much lack of accountability,” he says. Certain school districts, he feels, need to show that they are producing results. However, Sehringer also believes that special situations need to be taken into consideration for different schools. He defines these circumstances as schools full of disadvantaged students with fewer resources, special education students, and ESL students. In his years at Columbia, he had to take time away from the lesson to help the lower level classes prepare for standardized tests, but he never taught towards a test in any other of his classes. He feels that too much emphasis is often placed on these standardized tests. For students who cannot pass the HSPA and are being held back in life, he suggests offering them a diploma alternative—a high school certificate that states they satisfactorily fulfilled the high school’s requirements, but that they were unable to pass the state standardized test after attempting it a multiple number of times. This document would allow students to finally finish high school and enter the work force.
Sehringer also faced the issue of inclusion while teaching at Columbia High School. He had special education students throughout his tenure. “As long as they were receiving the outside support, it was okay to have them in some classes,” he explains. With the help of teacher aides, these students were able to learn with the peers. “I had a girl with cerebral palsy,” Sehringer remembers. “She was able to function well on tests.” He did not mind catering to their needs to make lessons just as fair to them as the rest of the students.
Although a fair educator, Sehringer has seen his share of unfair demands by administrators. One of these issues is the growing requirement for every teacher to have a Master’s degree. Although the concept is great, he feels that it is very unrealistic. With the shortage of teachers, he believes that school systems cannot become too selective when filling positions. He believes financial factors for both the schools and individuals will also make it rare. Questions arise about who will pay for the education and then pay for the increase in salary. Another concern Sehringer faced involves the political and personal agendas of administrators. He became a victim of an evaluation that was constrained by a new principal.
“At Columbia High School, where I had a close relationship with the chairman,
I can think of one year when I looked at my evaluation at the end of the year.
I compared it with the evaluation from the previous year, and there was a huge
difference. So I went to him, and I said, ‘I’m the same teacher this year as I was
last year. How come the evaluation is so different?’ So he was very honest with
me. He said, ‘You know we have a new principal, and he said that there is a
limit to how many excellent check marks you can put down. But I did think I
did go overboard; so I’m going to do it over.’”
Three days later, Sehringer received a new evaluation that, he believes, was closer to his teaching accomplishments. He was not afraid to question authority when he thought he was being treated unjustly, and he was rewarded for his sincerity and courage to stand up for what he had achieved.
Sehringer is generally pleased with the progress the public school system has made. His only concern is that they are “becoming so involved in social agendas.” In his years at Columbia High School, the school created the Gay and Lesbian Club, but after little to no students came out to the club, they changed the name to the Straight, Gay, and Lesbian Club. This example, he believes, shows isolated groups affirming a lifestyle rather than dealing with issues. With a strong Baptist background, Sehringer believes that such radical and leftist groups question too many world issues at too young of an age and serve as a distraction for the students. His concern led to my curiosity about social agendas in the past and teachers’ thoughts on bringing them in the school. Did they have a negative or positive impact on the school environment? I would like to find out more of current social agendas and how schools, students, parents, and political parties are deciding to deal with them.
Although the school environment has changed, Sehringer’s teaching philosophy has remained the same since his fourth year at Columbia High School. His first nine years of teaching involved him lecturing to the class for the entire period. After his tenure year at Columbia, he decided that students were not benefiting from his old teaching style. He began to call students up to the board in order for them to show and explain their work on different math problems. In his old way of teaching, Sehringer also asked a question and gave the answer if no one responded in a short period of time. He changed his practices and would no longer give them the answer. He allotted his students as much time as they needed, and the students knew they had to work hard towards finding the answer because he refused to give it to them without them trying it first. In his current approach to teaching, Sehringer ends his lectures about ten minutes before the class is over in order to allow his students to start their homework and ask any questions they may have. “I also encouraged students to work together,” explains Sehringer. “Studies show that one reason that Asian students excel is because it is part of their culture to study together in small groups.” Before midterm and final exams, he reminds students of this beneficial study practice, which I would love to explore further in the context of Asian culture as it compares to American studies.
In his interactions with students, Sehringer relates his approach to an observation he made in eighth grade. During his science class that year, the teacher would always kick out the same boy who acted as the class clown. Sehringer noticed that this classmate was well-behaved in his other classes. He believes that the teacher failed to see the reasoning behind this conflict. He felt that perhaps the student did not like this teacher or was having trouble with the subject matter. Sehringer makes it a point to get to know his students outside of the classroom setting. He will attend sporting events or plays and comment on a job well done to the students the day after. Along with this practice in caring, he also gives out a questionnaire at the beginning of the year to get to know the students’ hobbies, likes, and dislikes. He is making the same effort I would like to make in getting to know the students outside of the classroom setting. When such care is shown towards their interests, students can feel comfortable in the teaching environment. “I try to engage my students in what we’re doing,” says Sehringer. “I show enthusiasm when I’m teaching something and hope that if the students see that I like the subject, they will too.” He ties all of these techniques together to give his students the best learning experience possible.
With all that he has learned, Sehringer has much advice to give aspiring teachers. He has had to deal with his fair share of upset parents. “Try to stay calm,” he advises. “Let the parent say what he or she has to say. Sometimes they have an inaccurate version of the situation from the student and need to hear what the teacher has to say. Then they will have a totally different attitude.” Parents may come in hostile, but he believes that sometimes all they need to do is just vent. Sehringer also suggests that a teacher should develop a strong background. “Know your subject matter thoroughly,” he explains. “If possible, have your student teaching with a good cooperating teacher and get a supportive mentor. Visit as many classrooms as possible. Explore different teaching styles. See how the teachers interact with the students.” He feels that a person can learn a great deal from every experience they have had.
Sehringer’s forty-four years as an educator highly qualify him to serve as an example of how teaching develops from learning and that the greatest of joys comes from passionately sharing those experiences with the students.