ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
What’s the secret to communicating effectively as a teacher to high school students?
“Well, I like them,” Jim Robb said without much hesitation.
That may be the cornerstone reason why Robb, instructor of history, government and social studies at Hillsboro High School, was the predominant choice in an informal poll of HHS seniors who were asked to name the most influential teacher in their school experience.
“Education has always been a fairly simple concept to me,” said Robb, who is in his 12th year at Hillsboro. “You talk to kids long enough to find out where they’re at, then you do what you have to do to move them along the line of maturity and knowledge and understanding.
“Then, at the end of the year, hopefully they are farther along than they were.”
Robb said he tries to see each student as a unique individual.
“You have to recognize that not everybody is going to like history as much as I like history,” he said. “Because of the fact that I like them, and they tend to keep me young, I enjoy talking to them, I understand some of the tensions that they’re under.
“Heaven forbid that I would want to go back and be 17, 18, 19 again, but I think I can sort of understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “They have something to say. I learn from them. I’ll listen to them. So it’s kind of a two-way kind of thing.”
Robb said he realizes the subjects he teaches lend themselves to more opportunities for meaningful interaction than many other topics in school.
“I became kind of enamored of the past,” Robb said about his initial inclination to teach history and social studies. “Then, over time, I found out it also becomes a vehicle for being able to talk about kids in a lot of different contexts.
“I can bring in a little humanities, a little literature and a little political science in terms of what we do.”
If teaching history effectively comes naturally to Robb, it may be that he had a genetic advantage.
“My mother had been a teacher during the war, when teachers were in short supply,” said Robb, who grew up in rural northeast Kansas. “So teaching was important to my mom.
“History was important to my dad-not the study of history, but remembering things that happened. My dad liked history from the standpoint that he wanted us to know where we came from, what the background was. That was important.”
Those themes became part of his own makeup as he made his way from his early education in a one-room grade school to earning a teaching degree from Bethel College.
“When I went to college, I played basketball and thought I wanted to coach,” Robb said. “But what I found out once I got into the educational field is that I enjoyed what happened in the classroom a whole lot more than I enjoyed what was going on in the football field or the basketball court.”
Robb did pursue both venues in his early teaching career, which included stints at Stanton County High School in Johnson, Lyons High School, Bethel College and then Sedgwick High School.
He came to HHS to fill an interim position for a teacher who was having health problems. When the teacher’s health did not permit him to return to the classroom, Robb’s assignment became permanent.
Even though history is not always a favorite subject for high school students, most HHS seniors gave Robb high marks for the two years they were under his tutelage.
“Mr. Robb made learning fun,” was a typical response.
“Probably what I see myself as most is a story-teller,” Robb said of his ability to catch the interests of students. “There’s got to be an emotional hook. If you want the kids to buy into what you’re doing, then somehow you have to be able to make it real to them.
“What I found is, stories help to make that emotional hook.”
So, when Robb teaches about the Civil War, students may see the battle mapped out in the middle of the classroom floor and hear the personal stories of people involved.
“You tell the story from Lee’s perspective, General Meade’s perspective-and Joshua Chamberland’s perspective, who has to order his brother into battle.
“I think kids like that because it’s not just sitting at a desk and taking notes,” Robb said. “It’s reenacting to the extent that you can reenact.”
Robb said the other thing he tries to do is make the pieces of history fit together in a meaningful way.
“Too often, history has been taught as ‘memorize these people, memorize these dates, memorize these events’-but there’s no linkage,” he said. “Students don’t see the cause and effect-how one thing that impacts one side of the world impacts what goes on on the other side of the world.”
Robb said he tries to show how every historical issue has at least two sides and that “right”answers vary according to the people involved.
“As reactive people, they may react right, they may react wrong,” he said. “So if it becomes something that’s all tied together, there’s heroes and there’s villains. That’s something they can relate to. They can see themselves in that situation.”
Robb said it also helps that he simply loves history. As a young boy he devoured the collection of fiction and nonfiction historical books in his home.
Today, Robb maintains a personal goal of reading 20 to 25 books a year and is a great fan of the History Channel, newspapers and news magazines.
“I guess I’m always thinking in terms of ‘How can I use this?'” he said. “When I watch a show on A&E, is there something I can take out of this story?
“As a teacher, I’m always thinking in terms of ‘Will this help me in some way?'”
Robb said he understands that the window of opportunity to broaden a high school student’s historical awareness is not open very wide.
“When I get them as juniors in high school, the year that I have them is one out of 16 years,” he said. “That’s 1/16 of their life compared to 5/16 of their life that was at home, and another section of life that is making friends and learning basic skills. They don’t have a lot of opportunity to develop a sense of history.
“The idea for me is that understand what they learned, that they know who they are and where they came from as a society-and potentially where we’re headed.”
What does he hope his students walk away with after two years in his classroom?
“One thing I would say is citizenship kinds of things,” Robb said. “I would hope they walk away with an understanding of compassion. I would hope they would walk away with some skills that would allow them to continue to be a student of life-the ability to read and understand, the ability to write, the ability to express themselves, the ability to ask questions, to be curious.
“I would hope they would realize there’s lots of different points of view in the world. While they may be ‘right’ from our perspective, they’re not ‘right’ from everybody’s perspective.”
Robb said he believes he’s found his niche as an educator and sees great value in what he and his fellows teachers strive to accomplish.
“I don’t know quite what I would do if I wasn’t doing this,” he said. “I think teachers sometimes sell themselves short, as in, ‘What else would we do?’ I think we can do a lot of things. Teachers are very talented, very skilled people. The phrase, ‘Those who can’t do, teach,’ is about as much a misnomer as you can get.
“This is a profession that I’m proud to be a part of,” he added. “I think our faculty here is an outstanding faculty. As a result of that, the kids are not only learning in my class, they’re learning in language arts, they’re learning in science, they’re learning in P.E.
“I think our test scores reflect the fact that we’re moving these kids forward, and that they’re more knowledgeable people-and hopefully better people-when they walk across the stage than when they walked in the doors for the first time.”