A Few Words with Mr. McAteer

Google Profile Pic ResizedWe sat down with Mr. McAteer to find out a little more about who he is and how he does what he does.

Why don’t you start by just giving us the quick bio.

Sure. I earned my BA in political science and MA in education from Fairfield University. After I graduated college, I worked in PR and marketing for five years, during which time my work coaching youth basketball told me that I was in the wrong career. I started my teaching career as an English teacher at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains. During my last year there, I took a job coaching JV basketball here at NCHS, where I was hired to teach English and Social Studies in 1996.

It might be fair to say my team practices a little differently these days.
It might be fair to say my team practices a little differently these days.

I coached basketball here in one capacity or another until 2010, at which time my daughters started swimming, which is one of those “whole family commitment” sports. In the last couple of years, I found my way back into coaching with my younger daughter’s middle school hoop squad. I’ve been teaching at NCHS for more than 20 years, with my core of classes typically consisting of Sophomore English, AP English and Journalism, as well as senior electives in Creative Writing and Poetry.

What courses are you teaching this year?

I will teach Honors Sophomore English, two AP English Literature classes, and Journalism in first semester, and add Poetry to the list in second semester.

Tell us a little about your educational philosophy.

I became a USA Swimming official a few years ago, and one of the key principles of officiating is, “The benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer.” The same is true for my approach to the classroom, just substitute student for swimmer. I believe that every kid is good and that every kid wants to learn, and that some kids have experiences or circumstances that get in the way of learning. My job is to create the conditions where every kid can find their way into the great possibilities of books, of poems, of plays, and of their own creativity.

Maddie and Tess are two who have dared to take on the challenge of Dostoevsky's crowning work.
Maddie and Tess are two who have dared to take on the challenge of Dostoevsky’s crowning work.

To do that, I think we need to have a little bit of fun, to realize that being a student is only part of each human being’s life. A I need to maintain a sense of proportion about what I ask them to do and what they have to do in other parts of life. I need to understand that a boy or girl who might be reluctant or appear disengaged in the classroom is someone’s favorite babysitter or a trusted employee or a wonderful grandchild. I refrain from judging kids by repeating to myself, “Be more Alyosha,” a reminder to practice the “active love” that is the source of strength and compassion from the best character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

So let me tell you a couple of things that students say about you, and allow you to respond. First, a lot of your former students have described you as “vague.”

Oh, I’ve heard that one before. Kids ask questions, and they expect answers, but that’s not really how I roll. First of all, no student has ever come home from college and said that their professor asked, “So, what did your high school English teacher think about this book?” Second of all, I don’t pretend to have answers; when I hear a question that asks me to simplify the complex, I respond by pointing out the complexities. In short, I guess, kids confuse vagueness with the presentation of possibilities within a text or for their own written work, and they seek simple answers when they should be looking for complexities.

Honestly, I think I couldn’t be clearer. I pay an awful lot of attention to the specific details of the rubrics we use for class, and I’m really careful to align my assignments with the outcomes and qualities of work outlined on those rubrics. But for many kids, rubrics are like tchotchkes in the living room; they blend in with the rest of the furniture, and the details get overlooked.

I think some of them would say, “That’s a very Mr. McAteer response.” Second, kids have said that you don’t really care about due dates.

Teacher Apple Resized
My favorite part of the photo is the quote above the – as we found out later – poisoned apple.

I understand why they think that, but I really do care, more because we need stopping and starting points to learn in an organized manner than because my arbitrary deadlines are sacrosanct. The thing is, kids learn at different paces, they have different experiences outside school that impact their ability to do work, and adolescents, like adults, will sometimes have their emotions get in the way of productivity. If I am a fussbudget about deadlines, then I’m putting my needs ahead of kids’ needs. I’m also setting kids up to become less honest than they otherwise might be. If you had a bad day when an assignment was due, you’re likely to think that’s a weak excuse, and you might make something up that sounds like a better excuse. I’ve decided to never ask for explanations, so we can maintain an honest interaction, and so kids can understand that the work is about them, and they have a right to access it when they are most prepared to do it well. But it’s in your self-interest and in mine to meet all the work deadlines that can reasonably be met.

Sure, some kids take advantage of it, and sure, I sometimes hate “getting beat” by a kid who takes that advantage. But then I remind myself to Be more Alyosha, and to forget about keeping score, because that can only hurt the kids who need the flexibility.

Well, that’s about all we have time for today. Best wishes to you for a great school year.

And same to you.

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