Jim Reed is an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Lakelands Park Middle School, Gaithersburg. He was interviewed on the phone Jan. 27, 2013.
Can you tell me about your journey to teaching? I know it is not your first career.
I was in the business world until 2007 working with nonprofits. I worked with the Civil War Trust, which helps to preserve Civil War battle sites. They moved to Hagerstown and I did not want to move up there so I went to the American Kidney Fund [which provides patient support, education and prevention information]. I also spent a lot of time with my dad in his last two years. He had Parkinson’s [disease]. The time with him made me really reflect on what I wanted to do. I realized I did not want to spend the rest of my life in the business world. I had done some coaching in D.C. public schools. Mike McLeese, at Dunbar High School, gave me the opportunity to coach. Everything I do now I owe to him. He was a great guy, and the teaching and coaching I do today I owe to him.
In 2002, an opportunity came up with MCPS where I could be an itinerant instructional assistant at Longwood, the upper county special needs school, so I left the American Kidney Fund. I was assigned to one student.
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been with MCPS 10 years and at Lakelands Park MS all seven years it has been open. I love it there.
Tell me about working with middle-school students.
I am very happy working with middle-school students. The student I worked with at Longwood was middle-school age. He went to Kingsview Middle School for art and PE. There, everyone was great helping him fully participate in the games. The kids were so great with him. They seemed to understand that all life has meaning, all life has dignity. It made me see the majority of kids seems to understand that everyone deserved an education, that people with disabilities are not to be mocked.
Isn’t it middle-school students that have such a reputation for bullying?
They can, but most of these kids are kids who are tolerant, understanding and accepting. It’s never going to be a bully-free world, but the idea that we are now saying — “this is not okay” — I think is good.
Is it hard to keep your students engaged?
There are certain times. Like, we had to do a lesson on the Articles of Confederation, the first form of government. I can’t make that fun and I tell the kids I can’t make everything fun, but we have to get through it. If I can role play or in some other way make [a lesson] interactive, I will.
What is one thing you most hope to leave your students with at the end of the year? I would hope they learn and they look forward to coming into my class every day. I talk about current events every day, but I won’t talk about politics. They are talking about things that are practical to their lives.
Are they up on current events? Where do they get their information?
A lot of them are up on current events. I was surprised they are more aware than most people think they are. I would say the majority of them get news either from their parents and a lot get it from Internet news. The evening meal, a lot of families still take the time to sit down and talk. It’s nice. As much as we hear social media keeps us from talking to each other, at Lakelands Park, they still do [talk].
I’m also a trivia nut, especially about Lincoln. I share trivia with my kids. It humanizes [historical figures] for them and gives them something to go home and talk to their parents about.
If you had one super power to help you with your job, what would that be? It would be the power to know, is this lesson really connecting with the kids or are they every place else but there? I’d love to have a detector that tells me you are losing them or you need to approach this another way.
Who is your favorite historical character?
Abraham Lincoln, hands down. He was a man with so many sides to him. Depression ran in his family — two times in his life he was under suicide watch by his friends — but he refused to let that impede what he wanted to do with his life. His father was an illiterate farmer and he looked at his father and said I want to do more than this with my life. He would not quit. Lincoln said my great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure. He definitely lost more than he won, in business and in public office. On just about every measure, he felt the pain, but ... he didn’t let that stop him.
I also wanted to ask you about your coaching.
That was another reason I got into education, because it would allow me to coach. I coach seventh- and eighth-grade boys’ middle-school basketball at Lakelands Park. We went undefeated last year and are 4-0 this year. I hope I don’t jinx that by saying it.
Can you explain that success?
We have got good kids at Lakelands Park and very supportive parents that understand that athletics is a big metaphor for life. I tell them when they start representing a school, they accept the challenge that you surrender the “me” for the “we.”
The world needs good leaders, but the world needs good followers, too. It’s good for the kids to learn (that) if you focus and work hard, you can overcome obstacles. I’ve been very blessed with positive role models in my life. I try to pass that on in terms of athletics. I tell my kids it is unreasonable to win every time, but there is no excuse to not do their best every time. I transfer that to my classes, too.
Anything you would like readers to know about you, your job?
Just I think we are incredible lucky being in Montgomery County. I really love Dr. [Joshua] Starr reaching out to the community. He is taking the initiative, looking to see how everyone can have their needs met. He brought in a fresh approach that translates down to my principal, Dr. [Deborah] Higdon, saying think out of the box. In Montgomery County, we are progressive teachers. There is more than one way to teach and we respect learning differences.
“Voices in Education” is a twice-monthly feature that highlights the men and women who are involved with the education of Montgomery County’s children. To suggest someone you would like to see featured, email Peggy McEwan at firstname.lastname@example.org.