Jeff Montgomery: The Long Way Home

Society as a whole doesn't expect much out of students. I want to tell them, you can start doing big things today. If you're going to make a change in your life, do it now.

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Thirty different worlds.

"I fell in love with the concept of pouring wisdom into young minds.

When you're sitting in the classroom with 30 kids, there are 30 different worlds going on. When you look at a kid, sometimes, they have a mask on. As soon as they leave the classroom, you don't know what their life is like -- the problems they face with friends and family. If you can develop a relationship with them in the classroom, where they feel comfortable coming to you with what they're dealing with, that's a goal.

If you don't give them a place where they can be themselves and be vulnerable and try out new things, they're just going to stay at a plateau. But if they feel comfortable enough to try something and fail, who knows how far they can go? You can get them trying new things if you provide them a comfortable space to do it."

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Facing each student's challenges - and facing your own.

"Growing up in small-town America, you don't really get to see a lot of things. I spent time in college making good and bad decisions, and I like to think that all of those things helped me gain a wisdom that can help young people make great decisions. I've faced the challenges and I've reached the end of the road, so I can go back and help kids face their challenges.

It took me a long time to find teaching. I went through college trying to chase everyone else's dreams. I tried business, engineering, science -- but one day, teaching swim lessons and taking British English, I looked around me and was just loving it. I realized that this is what I am supposed to be doing. After chasing everyone else's dreams for awhile, I finally thought, if I am going to be happy for the rest of my life, I better be doing something that I'm happy doing. And that's where teaching and coaching came in."

Finding the gaps.

"I grew up playing baseball. I've been around sports all my life; it felt like one of those things that kept pushing me in the right direction. In class, the kids may not hit it out of the park, but they can go up to the plate with a bat and the tools to prepare themselves for success. When you see students struggling with a paper and it turns out to be amazing, it's like hitting that ball in the gap. At the same time, though, when a kid writes something that's not as great, it's kind of like striking out. So I can say, 'what can we do better this time?' We have to get back in there and get some fundamental skills down -- just like baseball.

I find that being a coach allows me to be that same encourager in the classroom. But the kids have to know that you're real, too. There are days when I walk into the room and I say up front, 'I'm just really having a bad day. But we're going to get through this together, so cut me some slack and I'll cut you some.' And I think they appreciate that. Because you can't be on your A game every day. If you pretend you're something you're not, they'll see that."

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Seize the opportunity to change.

"Society as a whole doesn't expect much out of students. They're an important group, and yet we don't have any expectations for them until after high school. We say, 'No, now you have to go to college'; 'No, now you have to go get a Master's degree.' I want to tell them, 'You can start doing big things today. If you're going to make a change in your life, do it now.'

We do a senior project at the end of the year. I tell the kids, 'Hey, this is a rare opportunity to share your perspective on life and the world. The forum is open, so go for it!' As they get older, people won't necessarily ask them what they believe -- they'll tell them. So here's their opportunity. Basically, we do a video montage that narrates their entire senior year. The pictures are their true perspective -- glimpses into each student's unique life -- and there have been so many that just bring me to tears.

This year, in her project, one girl wrote that she was afraid of being alone and worried that people would forget about her. Yet the basis of her project was pictures of other people. As she was reading it, there was this affirmation that there really are those kids who walk around with a mask on. You never know what fears or anxieties they have. But this girl went off to college, out of state, and came back and told me, 'I was so scared to make new friends, but being vulnerable to all of those people in that classroom was a weight lifted off my shoulders. It made me realize I did have people who cared about me.'"

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Teach because it matters.

"A wise man once told me, 'If you do something that you love, you'll never work a day in your life.' And there are some hard days, but most of the time, I'm not working.

One day, my father-in-law -- an awesome man -- asked me if I wanted to take over his plumbing business. It's a very profitable business, and I was so honored that he would ask me. But I was in the midst of teaching, and I had to tell him no. I honestly feel like this is where I'm supposed to be."