Posted by: Date: October 28, 2009 In: ,

Alum learns that teaching fifth graders requires mixture of toughness and fun

Eric Pfaff had a cold, but he was staying a few more hours in his classroom at Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma to finish up grading some papers, talking with kids.

“No, I’m fine, ” as he hacked.

Besides, he couldn’t stand the thought of missing a day with his 17 fifth graders, who challenge him, tease him and inspire him each day.

“This is much different than anything I’ve ever done,” said Pfaff. “It’s an amazing challenge each day. Every day I wake up and I’m so excited; it’s such a fun thing to do.”

After completing five weeks of intensive training this summer in New York City through the Teach for America non-profit, Pfaff, ’09, set off to the flatlands of Oklahoma to follow his passions into teaching. The English major said that teaching had always been a passion for him, and even though the days are long, he’s found his niche and his calling.

The first day all the teachers arrived at the school – which has a population of students that all are on the free-lunch program – the principal told the assembled teachers that if they considered this a job, to leave now.

“I think that PLU prepared me for the idea of vocation,” Pfaff said. “One of the first things my principal said was that if you ever think of this as a job, that you need to leave. She said this is a calling.

“That really resonated with me.”

And such passion is needed to reach the students, many of whom come from homes where the next meal and the next paycheck is always an uncertainty.

Each morning, Pfaff, 22, gets up at 6 am and is in the classroom by 7 am. He lets his students eat in class to make sure they have breakfast and then they get to work. Pfaff teaches everything, from math, to science to English. After school, he works on papers and talks to students. He usually leaves about 4:30 pm. Then repeats this the next day, and the next.

The local newspaper interviewed Pfaff just before the first day of class, as Pfaff was putting the finishing touches on his room and nervously awaiting for his students.

“Oh my god,” Pfaff laughed, when asked about the article. “I feel like that Eric is totally gone. I feel like I’m better prepared after nine weeks of doing this. I know what to expect.”

One of the things that surprised Pfaff was how tough he’d have to be on the students to gain their respect. For the easy going Pfaff, this was difficult. But he saw that being strict with his charges had a purpose.

“You really need to be on them, and make sure they are successful,” he said. “If I’m not being strict and on top of things, they aren’t learning and I’m not doing my job.”

That doesn’t mean the class doesn’t have fun. Birthdays and family events are celebrated. Teachers are encouraged to become part of the community. Pfaff said that the PLU philosophy of getting involved and making a difference has stood the in-the-world test here.

“The world really does need people who care,” he said. “Alums with the PLU identity and the PLU background are really needed to step up and just do it.”