When imitation is indeed flattery
For Waukee High School Principal Cary Justmann, it’s not about what inspired him into education, but who: 2016 Teacher of the Year Scott Slechta.
Indeed, the non-academic lessons Justmann learned from Slechta’s classroom nearly 30 years ago is what keeps him laser focused on the work being done at his 1,800-student school today.
“I have taken an approach of trying to build those connections with students and for them to leave my classroom in a better mood, and having higher motivation to learn,” Justmann said. “That was instilled in me by Scott. Teachers should not have favorites, but every student left his class thinking they were his favorite.”
That’s especially true for reluctant students, or those who are at risk of dropping out of school. And while Justmann himself may not have been a reluctant learner, he did understand it. In a 1997 letter to Slechta – just two years into his teaching career – Justmann wrote, “It is easy to look at kids and make a judgment about them, but that is something you refused to do.
“I was a ‘jock’ who didn’t like ‘plays and things’ when I came into class on the first day, but by the end of the year, I was part of the Drama Club. These qualities in a teacher are the ones I hope to have.”
Today, Justmann is pushing these qualities onto his educators. In fact, he had Slechta, an English teacher and drama coach out of Fairfield, present to his team recently.
“Scott’s approach was ‘I’m going to care about you, and push you academically, and make you think thoughts you had never considered before,’” Justmann said. “If you are in a safe environment, and not singled out by a teacher, then you can let down those walls and do some great thinking. You need to be in an environment in which it is OK to fail, so long as you learn from it.”
For his part, Slechta remembers Justmann fondly.
“Cary was always respectful, he was always curious, he was always spunky – he was one of those kids you liked,” he said. “He was very inquisitive. He just got it.
“It is great to see him being so successful. He is doing things I would never do – I would never be an administrator.”
Why is that?
“Because I would have to deal with teachers like me.”
That would be great with Justmann.
In the 1997 letter, Justmann wrote, “Every day I walked into class, whether a good or bad day, I almost always left in a great mood.
“I will be the first to admit that English was not my favorite subject, but you made the class interesting and challenged us to do good work.”