Teachers spend careers without knowing how they affected the lives of the kids who passed through their classrooms.
Mike Dean, who spent 38 years in the Janesville School District, is hearing from dozens of former students at a time when he needs the words the most. He is in a hospice, suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.
Dean’s son, Steve, set up “Mr. Dean Memories” on Facebook in November, and memories flooded in from former students and colleagues.
“I have never met anyone as dedicated to the craft of teaching as my father was,” Steve said. “He truly cared and immersed his life in his true calling. Whether it was writing in-depth, personalized comments on the paper of every student, lending an ear or an encouraging pick-me-up to those in need, jumping on top of desks or dressing up like Zeus, there is nobody like him. He left a lasting, positive impression on so many, and I am glad I have been able to share these memories with him.”
Steve has read the comments to his father, eliciting many smiles as the old teacher remembers.
“His short-term memory has taken a humongous hit. He’s not walking. But his long-term memory is pretty good. … He’s remembered students, he says, back to 1968,” Steve said.
“He’s gotten emotional a couple of times, and I asked him, ‘Do you want me to stop?’ And he kept saying, ‘One more.’ … It’s been really good for him.”
Dean taught in Janesville from 1966 to 2004. Most of those years were spent in sixth or seventh grades at Monroe Elementary and Franklin Middle schools.
He spent long hours, not only preparing innovative lessons but in informal counseling, coaching and supervising early-morning basketball.
“I think you saved me,” a former student wrote. “I was a hot mess of emotions and confusion, and you never judged me. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t fashionable, and I was just a little too different. But when you took the time to sit in a desk across from me after an exhausting day of trying to get through to little degenerates, it gave me the attention I needed to feel loved.”
Dean taught history in a way that made it real for students. He was remarkably creative, said longtime Franklin principal Kim Ehrhardt.
One of his best-remembered assignments was to create a fictional “Mythlandia,” complete with maps.
Dean’s classroom was where Ehrhardt would send visitors to see a master teacher.
“Some teachers are very friendly and engaging, but he taught school, too,” Ehrhardt said. “He really was the best. He had high academic standards for everyone.”
Comments posted by former students and colleagues are heartfelt, compelling and inspiring. A sampling from longer posts:
- “I remember his enthusiasm, often seeming to speed-walk around the classroom or standing on desks because he was so passionate and excited about whatever topic he was teaching. I remember him breaking into song in the middle of a lesson because something reminded him of a particular song.”
- “I remember when it was ‘cool’ to use or say the phrase, ‘That’s retarded.’ Mr. Dean educated us from day one on the negative impact that word has, and how hurtful it can be. Because of him, that word has no use in my vocabulary and I am sure a lot of kids remember the same.”
- “I was in class on September 11 (2001). He was the only teacher who was able to explain what was happening, almost spot on. He was able to teach through the extremely emotional day to ensure all of us students could truly understand what was happening and the future impacts of it.”
- “It was the first class I ever had where blurting out was encouraged. Mr. Dean orchestrated group conversations in a marvelous fashion, darting up and down the rows of desks pointing, questioning, pulling words out of students’ mouths, trying to get everyone to participate—part Socratic method, part evangelist, part Broadway actor.”
- “To this day I often wonder, ‘Did we really read Homer in the sixth grade?’ Ray Bradbury? What else? Writers and stories that any sixth grader would have to reach to the stars to comprehend. But we did ... because Mr. Dean believed in us. … And because he believed in us, we believed in ourselves.”
- “I’ll never forget he taught us how to order a hamburger, french fries and a coke from McDonald’s in sign language.“
- “I only saw him angry once, and that was when he witnessed a bullying situation.”
- “I remember him always staying after school on top of a desk with staples in his mouth, hanging up a display of our work or creating a new interest point. I remember how passionate he was when engaging young minds, pieces of chalk sticking out of his teeth, or running backwards, arms in full flair and eyes alight with fire. I remember Mr. Dean dressed as a knight for King Arthur’s feast or nursing a bloody lip into class after being kidnapped by aliens in order to inspire a story. His laugh was infectious and his warmth covered me like the comfort of a blanket. He taught me how to express myself in writing and to cherish the written word.”
- “Mr. Dean knew I was struggling, and he took the time to show me that he saw me and I was important. What I didn’t know until this (Facebook) group was how many other people he was helping at the same time as me. How did he do it???”
“He always ended the Pledge of Allegiance with “play ball!” I still say this in my head every day when I do the Pledge of Allegiance with my students. It still brings a smile to my face.”
- “Middle school was rough, and you helped me believe in myself. You made learning fun and provided so much life guidance. You would talk about Steven and Katie (Dean’s children) and make us all feel like part of your family. … I am currently a special-ed teacher at Janesville Craig and have you to thank for being a role model of what a teacher should be and how to engage and care about my students.”
- “He told us about his daughter (who is deaf and has cognitive disabilities) and taught us sign language. This opened up conversations about disabilities that some of us may not have had the opportunity to have back then. His energy and passion ignited us students. ... To say Mr. Dean was the coolest teacher is an understatement.”
- “I also remember Mythlandia and how proud I was of my country of Fruitopia. It might surprise you to hear that I’m hoping to get a job in the spring in mapping as a draftsperson or GIS (geographic information systems) analyst!
Guess that seed was planted long ago in that second-floor classroom in Franklin. … Most of all, I remember your big smile and how welcome I always felt in your classroom. … Clearly, one doesn’t need to be the president to change the world; you can simply be like Mr. Dean.”
- Matt Fiedler remembered an all-school talent show in 1986, when he, Toby Kubler, Adam Hefty and Derek Winn did an air-band performance of Sex Pistols’ songs:
“I capped the performance off by smashing a wax bust of Abraham Lincoln on the stage,” Fiedler wrote. “Most students seemed very confused by what they were seeing. Most staff seemed appalled. … But not Mr. Dean! He was grinning from ear to ear, pumping his fist, and bobbing his head to the music. He gave us a huge applause and praise as we finished. He always seemed to appreciate the rebels.”