Striving for classes that can become dinner conversations

Teachers talk about how, and why, they teach

By Mary Beth Peabody

Just about everyone can recall that one (or more) teacher who had a way of bringing out the best in students, whose presence in the classroom yielded respect and kindness, whose passion for the subject made a learner out of every classmate. Conversations with some of South Jersey Catholic Schools teachers offer some insight about how they do it — from engaging with learners, to dealing with discipline, to helping students grow their faith and maintain strong values.

A conversation with John Yeager

Paul VI High School, Haddonfield

World Literature, Film

John Yeager is entering his 41st year as a teacher at Paul VI High School, Haddonfield. But his history with the school is even longer, since it’s also his alma mater. Yeager’s wife, Mary Anne, and son Sean are alums as well.

Yeager said it’s the students who make him want to come to work every day.

“I really don’t believe that any teacher could dedicate years and years of service, if he/she didn’t first love the students the way Christ taught us to love children,” he said.

Noting that most of his students come from Catholic grade schools, Yeager said they are “generally mature, and respectful, beyond their years.” He also said that since he teaches seniors and a handful of juniors, “they have — for the most part — come to identify with the ‘We are Paul VI’ philosophy … a focus on moral and spiritual development through sports, clubs and extracurricular activities that has spilled over to the classroom.”

With discipline a non-issue in his classroom, Yeager is able to focus his energy on keeping students engaged. “My film appreciation class is a no-brainer, since the medium is so familiar to them. World Literature is just a little more challenging,” he said.

One tactic he uses is reading aloud, which he said helps students “appreciate ‘the words’ — to see how vital, vibrant and vivid the language is [and] has been from Homer to Chinua Achebe.” He said hearing the works helps students discover tone, diction and discourse and leads to discussions about ways secular literature has helped carry non-secular themes throughout the ages. “Teaching in a Catholic school allows me to focus on cultivating Catholic values while reading Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Ibsen and Miller,” he said.

Yeager takes student feedback to heart. “Just about every student evaluation I have ever read has entertained the idea that by changing gears the classroom experience is made that much more rewarding.” Group exercises, projects and presentations, and student-led jury trials are examples of how he keeps his classroom dynamic.

“What I like hearing most from parents is that Johnny [or] Mary talks to them about the class at the dinner table. That is something they (the parents) truly value … as do I.”