By Jody Steinberg
Kevin Travis’ typical workday last 12 hours, but he’s not complaining.
“I think on most days, I have more fun than most people do at their jobs,” said Travis, a Dunwoody High School social studies teacher named at the start of this school year as DeKalb County’s high school teacher of the year for 2010-11. “I love what I do.”
The long hours are the only thing typical about Travis’ days. He carefully plans his lessons, yet relies on student interaction to drive each class.
“The students keep everything interesting,” he said. “Even if I teach the same content semester after semester, the students make it different. It changes the way you teach the class.”
Travis began his teaching career at Dunwoody High five years ago. He has taught history, social studies, civics, even law. His signature class is Advanced Placement psychology. Once a single class of 32 students, it’s become so popular that DHS now offers seven or eight classes per year to about 160 seniors and juniors. He also coaches the school’s debate team.
Keeping students engaged in class every day is a formidable task for any teacher. For Travis, success isn’t about popularity. Instead, it’s about helping students learn and relate to new ideas and concepts. He teaches with more hands-on activities and discussions than lectures. He wants to push students beyond their comfort zones while maintaining a sense of humor.
“One of the most difficult parts of teaching is finding the balance between challenging them to become the best that they can be, but not being so challenging that they give up in frustration,” he said
Examples from some of his recent classes:
— A 1950s history lesson on how interstate highways revolutionized transportation becomes a lesson in geography and segregation, as well, as students map routes between destinations with and without the highways and learn how the highways changed travel, divided neighborhoods and redirected commerce.
— A lesson on neurons becomes a sculpture contest as students create 3D models with Play-Doh and explain why their models should win. (Travis credits his teacher at Fayette County High School for that idea).
— Students represent different countries and compete for candy as they learn how the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I and led to World War II.
“I really like when students have the opportunity to work with the material instead of just being lectured to,” he said.
“Everything has to relate to the students. That’s one reason psychology is so much fun to teach – it’s all about them and their behavior.”
Travis grew up in Fayette County and earned his teaching degree at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven. He places a huge value on the skills he developed on the high school debate team.
“With the exception of some really good teachers I had, the one thing that helped me to be a critical thinker is debate. It really prepares students to analyze issues,” he said.
Every December, each of DeKalb’s 145 schools and centers selects a teacher of the year, who is honored for the following calendar year.
From that group, four DeKalb teachers of the year are selected: one each for high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and centers. From that group, the system-wide teacher of the year is selected.