When the going gets tough, they keep learning

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By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

There was a moment in his math class earlier in the morning when Gubser Elementary School fifth grade teacher David Baumer felt his grip on his class slipping.

The students were trying to calculate how many gallons of water 400 cups would fill. He stood at the whiteboard and walked the students through a number line and then tried to show them easier methods based on some previous calculations. Then the whispers started up among the students.

“It’s getting hard,” Baumer said. “But stay on the board with me and paddle together.”

The board wasn’t the whiteboard, but a surfboard, and a metaphor that’s helped him and his students since he first discovered the concept of disequilibrium two years ago.

“The disequilibrium is that moment when things get out of balance, when learning gets hard because it’s something new,” Baumer said. “When you are learning and something gets hard you have two choices: you can stick with it and ask questions or you can bail, and most kids bail way too easily.”

When a student last year came up to him to talk about problems with a new concept, she told him it was like being on a surfboard and you can either keep pulling yourself up and ride the wave or jump off the board. He swiped the idea and now uses it regularly.

Gubser teacher David Baumer works with a group of students, including Alivia Romero. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Baumer is in his seventh year of teaching, but he’s not where he expected. From an early age, he knew he wanted to be a teacher, but he envisioned himself teaching math at a high school. He loved the subject and managed to land a student teaching gig at that level, but when other adults would question the whereabouts of his hall pass between periods, he decided to listen to all the voices telling him he was great with kids and applied for elementary schools once he graduated.

Today, Baumer is fighting a cold, but he’s not willing to let it win and force him into taking a day off. He wants to be here for his students.

“I need to teach them what they need to know, but my ultimate goal is I want them to know that I care and believe in them,” Baumer said. “A big part of that is just being a constant presence in their lives.”

At a time when students are facing an enormous change in their lives as they prepare to enter middle school, that consistency matters more often than not.

“It’s a time when they are becoming more socially and academically aware that they aren’t all alike. Some of them do better in school, some of them are more outgoing and it takes a lot of work to build a community that helps them see past those lines,” Baumer said.

One way he combats the kids’ natural tendency to give into stereotype is to change partners frequently.

“We can’t have one kid thinking he’s the smartest all the time, we need to make sure they’re all learning from each other no matter who the person is or what they look like,” he said.

Preventing students from settling on their preconceived notions creates bonds between students that he hopes mirror the relationships he is trying to form with them. When not in class, Baumer is often a regular component of school activities. He’s had his head shaved when students met fund-raising goals, he’s been turned into a human sundae and acted the part of the surfer dude when the school’s theme last year was “Catch the Wave.” It lets the students see him as an actual person, which he can play off of when teaching.

“If a teacher can build that personal relationship, they can use it when teaching. The student will be more likely to stay on the board for them,” Baumer said.

While he’s not yet the seasoned veteran of some of his peers, Baumer made it past the critical five-year threshold when many teachers either commit to the profession or bail. The fifth year was his roughest so far, but a deeply-rooted mission to serve his community-–based in his faith–saw him through.

“I kept repeating to myself, ‘I will not be a statistic,’ the whole year through,” he said.

Baumer said it’s understandable when colleagues feel under-appreciated, but he also knows that those who seek out teaching positions because of the summer vacations are not the ones that will last.

The standards students are expected to reach with the students frequently change and it takes boundless patience to keep realigning himself with new directives and even the content of coursework, but he hopes new national standards being adopted by Oregon schools will even the keel for a while.

“Teaching takes patience not only with students, but with the job itself,” he said. “You don’t realize how much of your time is taken up with things other than being with the kids. When it comes to it though, you have to have that basic connection with kids and a willingness to put yourself on the line for them.”

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