CLARKSTON, Wash.—Sam Adams prompts, guides, prods and applauds his audience as he scrawls equations on a white board at Clarkston High.
“Can anybody remember? … How would I know from the start? … That’s the exact right step, Bradley … Did everyone hear Rob’s question? … Eyes up here … You might want to write that in your notes.”
Adams is teaching more than his algebra students. He’s also showing the ropes to Stephen Dale, an eager newcomer to his profession.
Adams is the latest winner of the Miller-Manchester Mentor Teacher Award, bestowed this fall by the Washington State University College of Education. Guy Pitzer, a supervisor of WSU student teachers, describes Adams as positive, flexible and sensitive.
“Over the many semesters I’ve worked with Sam, he’s exacted the highest level of performance from our student teachers,” Pitzer said. One of Adams’s greatest strengths, he said, is how well he gets to know his students.
“He talks with them, not to them. He expresses sincere interest in their activities and interests outside the classroom and incorporates that inside the classroom. Students feel a sense of freedom to ask, risk, and not feel the least bit inhibited or ashamed.”
Finding life’s passions
Adams is a 1979 graduate of WSU, where his father, also Sam Adams, taught physical education. A crimson Cougar T-shirt hangs front and center in his classroom. It’s one of many shirts decorating the room, each representing a college or university that former students have attended. Adams hopes the display will inspire his current students—maybe those struggling the most—to think about their future, and think big.
He sometimes starts class by reading from an inspiring book, such as Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.”
“We talk about finding passions in life and, hopefully, having your future occupation stem from your passions,” Adams said. “Also, I can discuss the connection between mathematics and different careers.”
Adams went to WSU intent on a science career. Along the way he decided he was a “people person” and earned a teaching certificate in addition to a biology degree.
Dale, who is student teaching in Adams’ classroom this year, had a similar change of heart. He studied kinesiology at WSU, planning to go into physical therapy. After graduation, he had an unexpected chance to substitute-teach in his hometown of Federal Way.
“I thought I wouldn’t like it,” he said, grinning. He returned to Pullman last summer to enroll in WSU’s one-year Master in Teaching Program.
The masters students spend two days a week in their teacher mentors’ classroom. The next semester, for 12 weeks, they are there full time. Students in the undergraduate teaching program have a similar schedule.
Ideally, the student teachers are more like teammates than observers, said Pitzer. “When it works well, it’s like listening to a good concert.”
Learning from each other
Dale makes the 34-mile commute to Clarkston along with other student teachers. At Clarkston High, he and Adams take turns in front of the classroom. Between lessons, both roam among the desks, offering help to students who work in pairs to solve the latest equation.
One trick Dale said he’s learned from Adams is to give a short lesson, then allow students time to absorb it. “He calls it chunking. He wants the students to look at the board – ‘watch me first’ – then he gives them a couple of minutes to take effective notes.”
“The chunks can’t be too long,” Adams added, “and you have to give them a second chunk of time to ask questions.”
Adams has mentored 18 or 19 student teachers over the years. The last three have been from WSU and have been phenomenal, he said. “We learn from each other.”
Adams has coached several Clarkston high sports—he’s still leading the tennis team—and clearly enjoys helping a new teacher like Dale develop his strengths.
“We talk about classroom management, teaching style, how you deal with kids,” Adams said. “He will be his own kind of teacher, as I am mine.”
Sam Adams’ students at Clarkston High include his sons Drew, a senior; and Ryan, a sophomore. His wife is pharmacist Kristen Auer Adams, also a graduate of WSU. See more photos from his classroom.