From Cop to Teacher: Managing an Uninspired Classroom

Interview with Geoffrey Wingard, History Professor, High School Teacher, and Former Police Officer.


Geoffrey Wingard never dreamed that his career as a municipal/county police officer would someday help him in his career as a high school teacher. But the situations he experienced while on his beat and dealing with dysfunctional families have prepared him to use those law enforcement experiences as a way to better relate to his students, helping them beat the obstacles that often stand in the way of their success

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Currently the department chair of the Bangor High School History Department, Wingard has held various roles since he switched gears from policing in the mid-1990s. After graduating with a Master’s degree in Asian history, Wingard found a position as a specialist-teacher at a high school that was developing a new Asian Studies/World Geography program. He also served as an adjunct history professor at Husson University and is currently an adjunct professor of history and social studies at the University of Maine. For two years, he worked as a partnership liaison for the Maine Programs Office, and he also held two different positions on Maine’s Regional School Unit 26 Board of Directors. Wingard, a graduate of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, also holds an M.Ed in social studies education and a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

Wingard has authored and contributed to many journal articles, newspaper stories, and op-ed pieces concerning education and his other passion, the martial arts. He has received several awards and honors, including the ING Unsung Heroes Award—a scholarship program for teachers who use new and unique teaching methods to enhance learning—and the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute Scholar Awards, among other notable honors. Professional development is key to Wingard’s success and to improving his craft. He has been a participant in the Advanced Placement Human Geography Teacher’s Institute, Taft Educational Center, and early on his career, Wingard participated in various summer seminars for educators, including the Maine-Wabanaki Studies Commission Institute and a rigorous National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, among other professional courses. Wingard is certified as a school administrator and maintains certification in secondary social studies, Advanced Placement U.S. History and Advanced Placement Human Geography.

Take a few minutes to enjoy our interview with Geoffrey Wingard as he shares how his unique experience as a police officer shaped his career as an educator.

GradSchools: Discuss your background as a police officer. What inspired you to switch to teaching?

I became a police officer after obtaining an undergraduate degree in anthropology, a very interesting but nearly unmarketable course of study. I found the job interesting and exciting.  However, after a few years I missed learning and wanted to try my hand at graduate school. After completing an MA, I was confronted with a choice: continue for a PhD, return to criminal justice work in some form, or teach. I felt that teaching would offer some new challenges and would let me spend time with my new family. Even though I had not always been a great student, I had had some great teachers and I hoped I could begin to fill their shoes.

GradSchools: How did you make the change from law enforcement to teaching? What steps did you have to take in terms of training and teaching degrees?

I first returned to grad school without much of a plan. I simply wanted to study and learn. In school though, I found I had an affinity for teaching. I enjoyed working with undergrads and spent a summer as an instructor for Upward Bound. When I completed my M.A. in Asian history I was very fortunate to find a high school that was developing a new Asian studies/world geography curriculum in their social studies department. I was hired as a specialist-teacher with a provisional certificate. Over the next two years, I completed education coursework at night and during the summers to fulfill the requirements of a regular certificate. Since I had taken so many classes I had nearly completed the requirements for a M.Ed., so I spent one more year doing intensive coursework to complete the Masters in education. During this time I took advantage of every professional development opportunity I could find. For example, I was accepted to participate in a various intensive summer seminars including the Maine-Wabanaki Studies Commission Institute and a very rigorous NEH Summer Institute.

GradSchools: How was your background in law enforcement affected your approach to teaching?

Compared to other new teachers I think I was able to approach critical situations (child-abuse, fights, and other crises) much more calmly. I have had few run-ins with even the most challenging students. I’m certainly not the biggest or toughest guy around, but having been a cop means that I have a bank of experiences to draw upon to help me resolve tension that many of my colleagues do not possess. I also have an understanding of the home-life experiences that many of our students mask while they are at school. By the time kids reach high school age, they become pretty adept at hiding family problems, but these issues inevitably impact their school experience. As a former cop I’ve been in those kinds of homes, I’ve seen the abuse, addiction, and poverty issues that affect many of my students, so I can relate a bit to their issues and help them succeed despite these obstacles. I hate to criticize other teachers, but most of my colleagues were good students from fairly decent middle-class homes; they just don’t have the life experience to connect with our most needy kids.

GradSchools: What are the advantages of taking a non-traditional career path to teaching? Have you found any drawbacks?

I would have been a terrible teacher right out of college at 23 years old. I would have been distracted by my students’ behaviors and I wouldn’t have had the life experience necessary to contextualize the content I teach. I also think that my particular experience in law enforcement has given me insight into human behavior – positive and negative. I certainly don’t get riled as easily as some of my colleagues. On the downside, I’ve found that I have to force myself to take staff issues and the bureaucracy seriously. When you’ve seen real problems, issues in the teacher’s room seem pretty trivial. This attitude has isolated me at times from my colleagues.  I constantly have to watch myself to make sure I’m not too dismissive of institutional politics.

GradSchools: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your teaching career?

I have found that my most rewarding experiences fall into three categories: relationships, learning, and family. I have developed some great relationships with students and their families. My most rewarding experiences are usually in the context of talking with former students who tell me how much my teaching meant to them. Sometimes it is because they have become historians, writers, or grad students, but more often it is because they have told me that I gave them the space and the tools to think about big ideas and to believe that their learning matters. I have also been able to continue learning myself. Feeling intellectually stifled was one of the major reasons I left law enforcement. When I found myself re-reading old textbooks on a 3:00AM radar detail I knew I missed learning. I now have a career in which I’m encouraged to continue to learn, to refresh my content area knowledge, and to grow my expertise. Finally, I am in a career where I can be present for my family. I’m not working crazy shifts. I can help with child-care during vacations.  I’m not missing holidays. This didn’t seem so important to me when I was a young cop in my 20s, but as my family has grown this has become one of the best, unexpected benefits of my job as a teacher.

GradSchools: You’ve taught history in high schools and colleges as well as teaching martial arts. How do these different learning situations inform one another?

Teaching high school and college classes are on a continuum. I see my high school teaching as maybe 40% content and 60% process, learning how to learn. In my undergrad classes, I reverse that equation and focus on about 60% content and 40% process, largely in writing and research.  Teaching martial arts, however, is a holistic process. It’s hard to know where the character education, physical training, and emotional/intellectual work combines. In martial arts there is a model called shu, ha, ri, which means first you replicate, then you apply, then you create or transcend. I think this model has somehow informed my academic teaching to a significant degree.

GradSchools: What advice would you give someone considering a teaching career?

I would say, consider it carefully. Teaching is not all standing in front of the classroom giving inspiring lessons to adoring classes. It is a lot of behind the scenes work. You’ll be faced with a lot institutional inertia. You’ll be confronted by hundreds of kids who have been so uninspired by school that they no longer know how to find joy in learning. If you go into the career with your eyes open, then you can find moments of joy in the work. But if you go into the job expecting praise from your students and recognition from your institution you’ll be sorely disappointed.

GradSchools: In your opinion, tell us what you think makes a great teacher.

Great teachers love learning, they love the subjects they teach and they know a lot about them. If you are considering teaching because you’ll be home to catch Sportscenter every evening, get a different job. Great teachers also need to be able to communicate passion – there’s a lot of theater to teaching. You’re on stage every moment of the school day and, like a method actor, you have to immerse yourself in the role.

Finally, great teachers need to meet students where they are, not where we want them to be. This is becoming more difficult in the era of standards-based education when every child is supposed to meet identical benchmarks. The best teachers I work with and have known treat their students as individuals.

GradSchools: Many students come to the classroom already interested in history. Others, not so much. How do you keep them all engaged?

Student engagement is the name of the game. Passive students are bored. There is no place louder or more full of joy than a classroom full of engaged teenagers. For students who don’t know a lot about history or who come into my class with negative associations about the subject, I try to show them that history is a human story, like a novel, video game, or movie history is drama.

In my classes we start with the basics, I don’t assume they know much content at all. I make them feel smart from day one, and then we build through research, reading, and writing to more advanced concepts. This means that I need to be very knowledgeable about my subject matter because I want to individualize lessons to meet my students’ needs. In a class studying colonial America, for example, I might have one student learning about political division in the colonies, another studying the mechanics of musketry, and a third researching traditional midwifery. I don’t need to be an expert on all of these, but I need to have a level of familiarity with the subject matter so that I can be a valuable guide to my students’ learning.

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