Class Act Values - Teaching starts with connections

Monday, October 11, 2004

Tom Keating

Class Act Values - Teaching starts with connections

Tom Keating ’71 was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year 2004 because of his connections. In fact, it’s all about connections for this 34-year master of the fine art of coaching, mentoring and reaching out to young people.

“No matter how ‘Jetsony’ we get, what’s never going to change is our need to feel connected and that we belong,” Keating said. “Doing that for kids is what teachers do best.”

As a Foley coach and teacher, and more recently as a teacher of at-risk students at Monticello’s Turning Point Alternative School, Keating has successfully practiced his philosophy: building human dynamics make kids click and makes a school click.

“All you hear about is test scores and numbers in education,” he said. “We need to develop relationships first; the learning comes after.”

When he speaks to such groups as SCSU education students embarking on their first field experience, Keating gives this assignment: “Say hello to a kid. Notice a new bike, haircut, piercing.” Simple, yes, but to Keating, this human connection is the best way to open young people’s hearts and minds to learning. Recognition of what makes them individuals and what’s important to them is key to getting through to students.

Not surprisingly, Keating peppers his conversation about his teaching success with names of those he credits with making him who he is. “Get one and be one – mentor, that is – is the mantra for our mentoring program.” He claims to have found some great mentors along his personal journey to career satisfaction, beginning with his transfer to SCSU from Metro State Community College in Minneapolis.

“That was a good move for me,” Keating said of his transfer. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I’d started working with kids. I’d done some wrestling and youth work, and I really enjoyed it and felt good about it. I knew this is what I’d like to do, and at the time the place to go if you were going to be an educator – the place to be was St. Cloud State.”

Keating’s premier mentor at SCSU was wrestling coach John Oxton. “I was never a superstar, but John made me feel valued,” he said. “He taught me the importance of making connections with people.”

“That’s what education is about – passing it on from one generation to the next,” said Oxton, who has kept in touch with Keating during the 36 years since the student joined the team in Oxton’s first official year of coaching. “I don’t think I would have made it through if I hadn’t had such good student leadership, and Tom was one of them. We had a miserable record that year, but the next we had one of the best seasons SCSU ever had.”

After graduation, Keating and his wife, fellow teacher Mary Sue Keating, started their careers in Foley in 1971. He’d applied for jobs all over the country and was scheduled to fly to New York to interview with Boys Club when he got the call – and offer — from Foley.

Keating, citing more of his mentors, lists a string of names of superintendents, principals, school secretaries, and fellow teachers whose vision and dedication to helping kids learn influenced his own commitment to education. The list includes the five educators who started Turning Point. It started because these people recognized there were kids who were falling through the cracks, Keating said. “We met Friday mornings at Perkins in Monticello to talk about what this school would be like. We’ve had 128 graduates now, many of whom would not have graduated without Turning Point.”

With Turning Point well established and in its seventh year, Keating imagines other plans for the future. It’s his dream to create a foundation to develop a place for troubled kids to stay – a place where they can have a part-time job, pay some rent, follow through on their treatment plan and stay in school. A place to keep them out of the 5H club (hopeless, helpless, homeless, hungry and hugless). “Membership in that club is a crisis waiting to happen,” Keating said.

Keating believes everyone needs someone to listen and not judge, a chance to tell their story, and then move on with their lives. He’s not opposed to standards, quoting the John F. Kennedy line, “If the tide rises high enough all the boats float.” But tests aren’t everything, he believes, and good teachers know that.

Keating’s Minnesota Teacher of the Year award gives him the chance to speak to the public, to raise awareness of the importance of the teaching profession. “One of the problems we have is that everybody’s an expert on schools because they went once,” he said.

“There isn’t a kid who comes through class that will say they remember learning about aortic valves,” Keating said. “What they will remember is that someone cared enough to ask about them, to get deeply involved in their lives.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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