By Meleah Maynard
Tom Rademacher talks with student KhaLani Freemont
In Asyana Eddy’s letter nominating her high school English teacher, Tom Rademacher (B.A. ’04, M.A. ’07) for Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, she wrote that he “will do anything in his power to help his students succeed. . . .He gives us the freedom to approach his subjects in the most creative ways possible, he teaches us that our thoughts matter, and that we are capable of anything we want to do with our lives.”
For Rademacher, who was named Teacher of the Year from among 10 finalists, it would be impossible to teach any other way. Growing up in Milwaukee, he saw how satisfied his mom seemed after a day spent teaching special education. Her mom had also been a teacher and, like them, he sees teaching as a public service. “I really believed my mom helped save the lives of some of her students,” he recalls. “Teaching is one of the few professions where you actually get to help shape someone’s life, and I saw the potential for what teaching could be.”
After earning his master’s degree in English education in 2007, Rademacher started teaching at the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resources (FAIR) School in downtown Minneapolis. First, though, he took a year off after being one of eight students in his writing program at the U chosen to have dinner with writer Garrison Keillor (B.A. '66). “I told him I’d wanted to be a writer all my life and asked what his number one piece of advice for writers would be,” he says. “He said to take a year off after college to work the crummiest job I could get by on and to spend the rest of the time writing, so I did that,” spending a year working the closing shift at a campus coffee shop.
When he started his teaching career, Rademacher chose the FAIR School because he wanted to teach at an art school. He chose English not only because he loves writing, but because he considers it the only core subject that is also an art form. After first being “obsessed” with the content he wanted to get across to students, he soon figured out what he thinks is the most important about teaching. “I realized that it isn’t about what you’re teaching, it’s how you’re there for kids when they need you and how you help them make sense of things.”
Last year, for example, his students focused on issues of social justice. The Black Lives Matter campaign came up frequently in the classroom. Rademacher helped students express their feelings in writing. “Once you make your classroom a safe space for students to express themselves, and that’s hard work to do, they will engage and share their feelings and perspectives. It’s an amazing thing to watch,” he says. “Kids have come back and told me that conversations they had in class helped them decide what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives, and that’s incredible.”
Because of their unique access to students, teachers are often the closest adults, after family, in kids’ lives, Rademacher says. It’s a heavy responsibility that keeps him awake some nights, even after a decade of teaching. Earlier this year, after nine years at the FAIR School, he accepted a new job as a teacher coach and instructional specialist at Anishinabe Academy, a Minneapolis public school with a primarily Native American student body. The position allows him to share with others what he’s learned about teaching. His aim is not to have people emulate his methods but rather be the best that they can be. “At its core, I think teaching is both an act of social justice and an act of love,” he says. “The amount of love teachers show students every day is a staggering thing, and if you walk around schools looking for it, you’ll see that the real service teachers provide is pouring care into students.”