Return to Norton Middle School

Posted Apr 4, 2007
Last Updated Nov 11, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day shadowing a teacher from my childhood. Gary Sigrist at Norton Middle School was gracious enough to let me accompany him through an entire day in his eighth grade science class. The experience was highly rewarding and educational for me… not to mention a little challenging to my views on my own education.

As a student I coasted through school. I was (and still am) one of those lucky people who naturally learns new things easily and quickly. Because of this trait, I am sometimes blinded by the challenges that people can face in school and life. While we are all of equal value, we are not all of equal capacity, talent, inclination and passion; furthermore, we are not all raised with the same set of moral values.

As I spent the day in Gary’s classroom I was forced to peel off some of the hardened skin that has grown on me over the years, as my heart opened to some of the challenges that a modern teacher is facing. These challenges were no mystery to my mind… but the conservatism of aging and parenting has dimmed the emotional perspective on educational dilemmas.

As I sat in the classroom I was amazed at how wrong my perspective was about Gary. As a preteen and young teenager I developed a heavy amount of respect for him that has lasted for years. But my memory of him was not totally accurate—in my mind he was a stern man who demanded respect. I have rationalized that this alone is what caused me to respect him long after I left his classroom and school and am leading my own life and career and family. As the moments went by and I watched Gary and his classes, however, things started to come back to me that I had forgotten. He was still as stern as I remembered with serious infractions… but it was not all bullwhipping that made up his repertoire.

He told jokes and teased intelligently. He is an expert punster. He uses interactive games and rewards that play into the natural instincts of kids. I found myself smirking over and over as the day went on… and the kids too enjoyed his teasing and play on words. While many of the kids may not have been overly enthusiastic about Science or plate tectonics (that was the subject of the day) they paid attention because they were interested in Gary’s presentation of the subject.

Between classes or at lunch I mentioned to Gary that I had forgotten his comedic side. He said, "You know, if I didn’t have a sense of humor, I don’t think I could do this job.” He said that part of his personal challenge every day is to make sure that every single kid that comes to his classroom has an opportunity to enjoy the class.

The day wore on and one classroom was followed by another. I saw a side of teaching that is obvious to any teacher but is easily missed by students and non-teachers.


All the classrooms were on the same course. Gary had to present the same content to each new classroom but stay as fresh as he was at the beginning of the day. For a man with a desk job, I was unprepared to stand on a hard floor for eight hours, and I marveled at Gary’s stamina. It wasn’t until the last class of the day that he sat for a significant amount of time at the front of the class—but still he was smiling for the kids and keeping his jokes lively. I had personally heard enough about reverse faults, strike-slip faults, Primary Waves and Secondary waves, but Gary kept the kids feeling like this lesson was for them personally even though the same lessons were repeated throughout the day.

Gary is also a police officer. So he has a unique perspective on the problems facing many of the kids in his classes. "I see some of the neighborhoods these kids come from. For many of these kids, this is the only safe place they know.”

One young man walked by us in the hallway on his way from one class to another. Gary said, "See that young man. He’s a member of a gang. His second child is on the way.”

These kids are in middle school. Do their parents not know about these things? What can be done?

Gary did not profess to have all the answers. But he said, "You can’t save them all. All you can do is show them respect and show them a safe place where everyone is expected to respect one another.”

An influx of immigrants in the last decade has increased the number of students who do not speak English. While I witnessed some minor animosity to that fact from at least one staff member, Gary seemed genuinely concerned about finding ways to help these English as a Second Language (ESL) students learn English and succeed in the classroom. Whatever your political stance on immigration in America, you ought not show animosity towards the children of immigrants—as they are innocent children who go with their families as your children would go with you wherever you might go.

Modern schools face many of the same challenges that historic schools faced. Non-English speaking immigrants are not specific to the here and now but have been an issue since America was first colonized. Funding for schools has been a challenge unsolved for as long as anyone has been visionary enough to want to be a teacher. Gangs exist in all places where wealth is an unrealistic expectation (in the minds of the poor).

My personal opinion is that most kids grow up and fail because their parents fail to educate them (morally as much as intellectually). For kids who have no worthy parental role models… school is one of the few places where they have a chance to learn. People like Gary Sigrist make the whole process of formal schooling (as flawed as it may be) accomplish great things. As a student I learned to respect him; as a parent interested in education, I finally realize how valuable of a resource any teacher like him is to the community.


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Richard Turner, M.D.

Jan 5, 2008

I am not only a pediatrician, but an alumnus of Westland High School (1982). This man's story is frighteningly familiar. It is also a wonderful story. And, yes, Mr. Olson, you are an amazing writer; and I couldn't agree with you more: one must, to a large extent, create one's own rely on someone else for your education if foolish. For one to truly become educated, one must have passion...passion for something; and passion comes from within and cannot be taught. Teachers can SPARK passion, but cannot teach it. Apathy and complacency are common and are paths to mediochrity; passion, enthusiasm, curiosity, character, respect and perseverence are paths to excellence. Nice story, Shawn.

Maggie Casillas

Apr 11, 2007

Hello, Do me a favor and thank your parents to raise you well. We need more people like you and also Mr. Sigrits on helping our children to do better in life. I totally agree 100% of what you mentioned in this letter. Take care....
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