Two risky moves paid off - at last

Award: A novice teacher dared to share his mortifying teen heartbreak - and learned a key lesson.

March 20, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In a way, he should thank Julie Perry for breaking his heart almost 10 years ago.

His cheeks still flush pink when he remembers it - the callous way she disregarded his heartfelt admission of love - but in the telling of the tale, first-year English teacher Nick Novak experienced the unexpected breakthrough he, and his class, was waiting for.

"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!" a bold River Hill High School student yelled one day last year, after Novak reluctantly shared with the class the embarrassing moment in high school when he presented 16-year- old Julie with a bicycle - because he had heard her say she wanted one - and recounted the subsequent slow-motion way her face contorted into "the strangest look I've ever seen."

That was Novak's first year as a teacher. And, judging by the classroom laughter, he wondered immediately if he had shared too much.

But when the giggles subsided, Novak noticed something: His English students wrote more in their classroom journals after that day. Their entries were fuller and more revealing. The teens seemed to really open up, knowing full well that their stories could never be "dumber" than Mr. Novak's.

"Was sharing this experience with my students the dumbest thing I've ever done?" Novak wrote in an essay that won him $500, and the recognition of state education officials. "Although it seemed so at the time, making my private life somewhat public turned out to be one of the smartest things I've ever done."

Last year, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick started Maryland's Initiative for New Teachers - a support and development program for the more than 8,000 new hires in the state each year. The "MINT Memories: Stories from First-year Teachers' Classrooms" contest was a way for the novices to share their experiences and put to paper what worked and what didn't during the crucial first year.

State officials said they found Novak's entry to be funny and insightful, honest and well-written.

Novak's education at St. Mary's College of Maryland was in English and history, where he learned to love reading and writing. After graduation, however, Novak thought he might be overwhelmed by being a college professor - his goal - and so decided instead to make a career out of a hobby: pastry making.

"But the whole time I'm cracking 600 eggs, I'm thinking about all the books that I read, all the things that I wrote," said Novak, 25. "I realized that that was a part of me that I couldn't ignore or get rid of."

So, knowing nothing about teaching teen-agers, he went back to school and got a master's degree in education. The Prince George's County native did his student teaching at River Hill and felt at home.

After he was hired permanently at River Hill, veteran teachers didn't hesitate to give Novak helpful advice: Don't smile until after Christmas break. Don't reveal too much of yourself. Be a mystery.

"I kind of heeded that advice to a certain extent," he said.

Until the day it was clear the class needed more motivation to fully invest in a personal daily writing project he had assigned. The class clamored to hear Novak's best narrative. Remembering the veteran teachers' warnings, Novak resisted, but the class wouldn't cave. Finally, Novak crafted the short and bittersweet story.

"Kids don't hold back the truth at all," he said.

The days afterward taught Novak a lesson he thinks will help get him through years two, three, four and beyond.

"I went in there with a set idea of what was going to happen, and as usual, the kids kinda take it over and say, `No. Let us show you how it's going to happen,'" Novak said. "You can listen to other people's advice, but your own development as a teacher is going to have to take its own form."

Now in his second teaching year, Novak looks back on that first year as having "periods of greatness and periods of utter failure," he said. "You wish you could go back and reteach them. You feel like you somewhat cheated them being a first-year teacher, with all the stuff you didn't know."

Novak's students, however, don't feel cheated at all.

"I never would've guessed that" Novak was a new teacher, said 15-year-old Stephanie Haaser.

"Um. He's just cool," said freshman Joe Kendall.

For Novak, the first year's experiences didn't only teach him a valuable lesson and earn him the respect of his students and state officials. It also impressed fellow first-year math teacher Jennifer Petruccy.

After meeting her last year, he asked, she said yes, and they're getting married in August. Novak intends to use the $500 toward his honeymoon.

"And I didn't even have to buy her a bike," he said.

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