In a word, wow.
On a Monday afternoon I found my way to the upper campus of Lake Carolina Elementary School in Northeast Richland, where I met fourth-grade teacher Tal Thompson, adored by his students and in the running for a nationwide teaching award.
But my first question had little to do with that.
“How tall are you?” I blurted.
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A smile about as big as the man himself spread across his 41-year-old face. “Six feet, eight inches,” he answered.
Next question: “Does your height have anything to do with how you teach?”
“A lot,” Thompson said.
So how does this guy teach?
Well, as far as I can tell, with the kind of energy that would wear anyone else out.
He stands on a stage at the front of the classroom. Literally, Thompson has a box that is about a foot high and several feet long. He looms large there, his arms outstretched like a fighter jet coming in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. And he leads his students through their lessons by way of song and dance (and the Sons of Liberty), rhythm and rhyme (and square roots), rock and roll (and Revolutionary War facts).
I’m telling you, it’s learning like you’ve never seen.
But for the fourth-graders who Thompson teaches, it’s like, well, as 10-year-old Jaedon Berry said, “He’s the best teacher I have ever had and will ever have.”
Thompson, who wears a pair of Chuck Taylor tennis shoes to class every day, is one of four finalists in this year’s Top Teacher Search put on by the “LIVE! With Kelly and Michael” syndicated television talk show. The winner will be announced on the show May 8.
“It’s been quite the ride,” Thompson said.
The teacher describes himself as “an Air Force brat” who “lived all over the place. I went to school to be an engineer. I knew I was good at math, but I was sitting in classes and I was just bored. So, I changed my major to general education. I knew I had a gift with kids. Someone once told me I was like the Pied Piper. Kids are just drawn to me.”
And he to them.
“I can’t envision a daily routine where it’s not me and the kids. These days, they have a very engaged out-of-school life. There’s in-your-face excitement all the time. I want to be that excitement in the classroom. And if they buy into that excitement, they will buy into whatever content I am trying to teach them as well.”
So how does Thompson do that?
Well, with music. He takes popular songs, like Taylor Swift’s “Never Getting Back Together”, and puts “content-related” words to the tunes. In the case of Swift’s top hit, the lyrics have been reworked into a lesson on the Revolutionary War. He also uses content-related songs he finds on the Internet and ones originating from the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Ga.
“Just think about an old song you love. You know the words, right? When my students are taking a test, you’ll see their heads bobbing up and down. They’re playing the songs they’ve learned in their heads. They don’t forget them.”
But while Thompson’s teaching is full of music and energy and where being out of your seat is not a bad thing, it’s not a cake walk in the classroom either.
“At the first of the year, I tell my kids, ‘You are going to earn everything you get in this class. You are not going to get an award for just showing up.’ ”
Don’t believe me? Check out the complicated Algebra problem displayed on a board that hangs from the ceiling of the classroom. It’s a lengthy mess of computing signs, numbers and lower-case letters. Underneath the equation is a note to students: “You WILL be able to do this by the end of the year.”
“I teach kids to think,” Thompson said. “Life is about thinking through whatever it puts in front of you.”
And what do Thompson’s students think of him?
“He does extraordinary things,” said 10-year-old Natalie Foster. “He never gives up on his students. He always pushes us to be the best we can be.”
“Mr. Thompson teaches us in a way we won’t forget,” said 10-year-old Erin Kohn.
I presume Erin was talking about facts and figures.
But one day, when she grows up, I bet she’ll be talking about the best teacher she ever had.
Know of a story that needs telling? Email Salley at email@example.com.