By Heather Mullinix
Greg Ferguson looks for those "teachable moments" when he can help his young math students see how their school work connects to other endeavors, or their play time connects to their school work.
From fishing trips to stock market to "geomarate" — geometry and karate — he's making his subject fun and helping his students prepare for new learning objectives and testing.
"They go beyond the regular computations to show their knowledge," he said. "They keep the facts and use diagrams and equations to show their work. And because the state requires it, I make sure they can do linear equations. But you can see they're thinking, and that's what so exciting."
Ferguson was named the Cumberland County Teacher of the Year for grades kindergarten through fourth grade. He's new to the Cumberland County School System, in only his second year at Martin Elementary, but he brought years of teaching experience with him from California, where he taught for about 20 years.
There he was named Teacher of the Year on multiple occasions, but if you stop by his classroom, those aren't the plaques he'll tell you about. Instead, he'll point to plaques and awards given to him by his former students thanking him for his belief in them.
"One kid told me he was going to Harvard. I told him to call me when he did," Ferguson said. "He called me. He graduated from Harvard and went to the Kennedy Center. Now he works for the CIA and says he's keeping an eye on me," he said with a chuckle.
Ferguson has been working to implement the new common core standards in his math classes. The common core standards will change how student knowledge is tested and what principles are tested at each grade level. Until it is fully implemented, though, teachers also have the state standards to comply with.
"We can't be naysayers," Ferguson said, pointing to the math objectives displayed on his wall. "We've got to grab these new standards and own it and be successful with it. In the Army, they'll tell you to go up the mountain, down the mountain and through the mountain, and you will take the mountain. That's why we're taking all the math practice and putting it together."
He's found great methods for helping his students not only learn the academic objectives, but making it fun. He has teams competing in the Middle Tennessee stock game, where they invest $100,000 and track their portfolio. They are also using their math concepts to build a backdrop of New York City in the hallway and will begin working on a dome that will reinforce their knowledge of geometry. He developed a game years ago that they play once or twice a month that offers a chance for review and reinforcement.
"I want to figure out how to blend the state standards with the common core to do the right job for the children."
He's also planning a fishing trip for students to his pond, stocked with bluegill and brim.
"That gives me a chance to talk about being a good steward, but I can also sneak more math in," he said.
That's a project he started in California where many of the students never had the opportunity to go fishing.
Teaching was actually a second career for Ferguson, who left his career in health care to enter the classroom. He spent about 10 years at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California working in the neonatal intensive care unit and pulmonary medicine. That was a kind of teaching, he said, because he taught respiratory therapy, but the work took a toll on him and he chose a new path.
Both fields, however, were fulfilling a promise he and his fellow soldiers made while fighting in Vietnam.
"We promised each other that if we made it home, we were going to make a difference," he said.
He spent nearly 20 years teaching in California, but he started to get a little homesick for his native Indiana. He and his wife, Cynthia, had a timeshare in California and traded that for a week at Fairfield Glade. There he was reminded of his time in Bloomington and the natural beauty of the area. The affordability of the area also attracted the couple who were happy to be able to buy a little land and bring their alpacas with them.
"No one goes into teaching to get rich," he said. "But the pay is great when you see the kids smile."
Ferguson took time away from teaching and worked with the alpacas, but he's a people person and he missed talking to students and teachers.
"After three months of talking to the alpacas and them not talking back, I missed being in the classroom," Ferguson said. "I thought I had a few more years in me."
It's been a common theme throughout his life. He previously worked as a consultant and conducted workshops for hundreds of teachers around the country. While he enjoyed working with other teachers and helping them bring excitement into their classrooms, he missed working with the students.
Now, he's back in the classroom again, teaching math at Martin Elementary. His wife is right next door teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM. The two sponsor a club in the afternoons that tie those fields together with fun projects.
"The staff here is fantastic," he said. "It's become my second, or maybe my first, home."
Making the subjects fun and simplifying it for students as they learn is important to him, as is tying his class in with what they're learning in other classes.
"I don't want the kids to be afraid of math or science," he said, adding that while he'd studied mathematics in college, it wasn't a passion of his early on. That was mostly because of teachers that made it seem intimidating.
Throughout his life, though, Ferguson recalls the pact he made with his fellow soldiers years before, and admits he could have made more money in other fields. "But that's not what it was about. It's about making the difference we promised each other we would make.
"Teaching is not a job," he said. "It's a vocation."