"You can't teach someone until they feel safe, secured, and cared about."-Ken Wolfe
There are good teachers, and then there are truly great teachers. The difference can't be measured with a piece of paper or letter grade, but the impact they have many years later on a person. The ones that a student can remember decades after graduating; almost as if they never left their classroom. Nipher Middle School teacher Ken Wolfe doesn't think of his class as a room full of students-they are a group of young minds he wants to mold into true scholars.
Wolfe likens a good day of teaching to a good day of surfing: "If the conditions are good, if it's not a full moon, if the school is strong and there is strong administration, and the class is in a good mood and there's good communication with them, it's a good day. You try to find that groove, because you know what you want to teach, so there's an objective. But, you have to find out where they are, so you have to surf."
Last week, Wolfe and I met for a late night dinner at Courtesy Diner to catch up, talk movies, and get in a time machine so we could think back to where all the surfing started. Unlike a lot of the people you meet and talk to every day, Wolfe stares you directly in the eye when a conversation is brewing, like somebody watching a movie they don't want to miss a second of because they fear something will be missed. It's almost as if the world is quieting down, turning their head, and watching the two of you talk. Wolfe is a man of many words and thoughts, but he's always listening.
For Wolfe, it all started back in 1988 when he was attending the University of Baylor. During his freshman year, he was waking people up in the morning on the radio at six in the morning, and he had his sights set on this profession, but then he was driving around in the middle of the night listening to another radio show, and it dawned on him. "I was driving up 69 through Oklahoma, and it was very late. I was listening to the radio, and there were three stations. I was thinking to myself-these people are basically talking to cows. But that's what you have to do to pay your dues. I was dating someone, and I knew I couldn't raise a family doing this job," Wolfe remembered. While he also had sights set on being a youth minister, that didn't produce a promising income for a family.
So Wolfe changed gears the next year, and through a heavy dose of prayer and kind advice from friends, steered his energy towards teaching. "There must have been eight people who told me I should teach. I took that as guidance, and enrolled in the school of education. When you think about it, it's both things I initially wanted to do. It is performance. You are on your feet, spur of the moment, and you have to be careful with the words and have a point. But it's also youth ministry, because you deal with kids and their lives."
For Wolfe and I, the journey started way back in the mid-90's. He was about five years into teaching when he came across me in the halls of Brentwood Forest. He was a teacher at Brentwood Middle School, and I was one of his scholars. From the early 1990's to 2006, Wolfe was the man of the hour for middle school attendees at Brentwood. He'd hop out of the classroom door like The Mad Hatter mixed with John Keating. Wolfe had the energy of a kid he was teaching, but the experience to point them in the right direction.
What gets through Wolfe through a tough day at the office? "When a student reminds me of someone I know. There are days where I just don't want to go, so what I do is I look at these kids and think of them as simply younger versions of me. I used to project which of these students would eventually be my wife and which would be me. You treat them like people you know, and it gives you a perspective to have more patience with them."
Wolfe doesn't get the largest amount of joy from one of his kids being super smart-it's more than that for him. "Here's my thing. I knew you before you knew how cool you are. That's what I love. I love getting in at the ground floor of good people. Before you had any idea how 'it' you are, I knew you. I remember you writing little movie reviews in the paper, and I was urging people to read your stuff. And now you are, so that's great. I feel like I have an investment in all of these people at an early age."
In 2006, Wolfe took his talent to Kirkwood, where he currently teaches at Nipher Middle School. Nothing has changed for the teacher who once spoke into a radio microphone and now speaks directly into a kid's mind. He's still molding young minds into hopefully legendary scholars. While every day is a challenge for any hard working human being, it's all about where you can find the greatness in what you do.
For Ken Wolfe, it's seeing the jewel in a soul before that person finds out where it is. Nearly 20 years after I left Wolfe's classroom, I feel like I am still in it every day of my life learning something new and pulling wisdom from the things that he taught me a long time ago.
There are a lot of good teachers out there who do fabulous work with uneasy students, but everybody has the one particular teacher who had the monumental impact on their life, and that impact never stops working. For me, it was Ken Wolfe.
I wouldn't do anything weird and urge you to buy a house in Kirkwood or anything, but if you are living there and thinking about where to send your kid to middle school, I'd highly recommend Nipher for one simple reason: Ken Wolfe is there.