COLLINSVILLE – James Stark is a teacher whose approach has been shaped by other teachers’ failures.
When he was growing up in the Chicago area, Stark said he saw the education system fail some of his friends. They were students who had low grades, were apathetic or frequently got into trouble.
“My favorite teachers were connecting with me because I was all like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m ready to learn,’ but they weren’t connecting with these other students, and it didn’t seem like they cared to even try,” Stark said. “And that upset me.”
Now that he’s the teacher in a classroom at Collinsville High School, Stark said his goal is to reach those students who might have been left behind.
Sometimes that means talking to them about something other than Latin – the subject he teaches – such as their interests, relationships or problems at home, Stark said.
“You can’t learn Latin if you are scared to death about something that might happen after school today or your mind is preoccupied,” Stark said. “Part of my job is to address that before we can even get into Latin mode.”
For one student, Stark is the reason he’s back on track to graduate high school. Kenny Denson dropped out of school earlier in the year because his unexcused absences were stacking up.
“Nobody else was there for me, and he was there,” Kenny said of his Latin teacher.
Stark has phone numbers for students such as Kenny who are in the school’s Latin club. He decided to text him.
“I sent him several texts a day for the next few days being like, ‘Hey, I’m not quite sure what’s going on, where you’re at right now, but I would really like it if you came back in and you talked to me about it,’ ” Stark said.
He urged Kenny, a senior, to stick it out for a few more months to get his diploma.
“And I told him, ‘It might seem like the harder thing to do right now with how many days you’ve missed, but we can sit down with your other teachers. We can figure out what’s going on. We can get a plan, and you’ll be good to go. So don’t worry. Just please come in, and let’s talk about this,’ ” Stark said.
Days passed without a response. But then Kenny sent a message agreeing to meet. He was re-enrolled in school by the end of that day.
“That was the most important thing I’ve done as a teacher so far,” Stark said.
Kenny said he was dealing with some personal problems at the time, but Stark never asked him directly about those problems. His teacher just helped him find support.
“I’ve been doing 10 times better mentally, emotionally since he’s brought me back in and gotten me the help,” Kenny said.
Stark has been a teacher for three years. At 24 years old, he was named the 2017 Illinois Latin Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Classical Conference.
His students have said they think of Room 225 – the Latin classroom – as a sanctuary.
“It’s a great place to de-stress and feel a lot better about yourself,” said Annika Cosgrove, one of his students. “He really appreciates everybody for who they are.”
One thing that students have said sets Stark apart from other teachers is how young he is. There’s only a six-year age difference between Stark and the seniors. Jacob Sorge, another student, said that helps make Stark approachable.
“There’s nothing you couldn’t trust him with,” Jacob said.
Students also have said that Stark is honest with them about who he is. Stark said he talks in class about his love of video games, something he was embarrassed about when he was their age, so they know “it’s OK to like things that not everyone likes.”
“I was the geeky kid who played ‘World of Warcraft’ (an online multiplayer game) all the time when I was in high school,” Stark said. “And I was so ashamed of it growing up, as if I had to hide that part of me from everyone else.”
Student Wolfgang Bronnbauer said he has seen Stark’s honesty help his peers, who usually are afraid to be themselves.
“He just created an environment where everybody can be weird and not feel judged,” Wolfgang said.
As for the way he teaches Latin, Stark said that is shaped by his students. They let him know when his lessons aren’t working. He makes a change.
One thing he regularly tries to do is connect the subject to their lives. Every Wednesday, students can bring in examples of Latin that they’ve stumbled upon that week.
During a recent class, one student talked about a letter she received from a college with a Latin motto: “In veritatis amore” or “In love of truth.” Another student found an example in her history homework: Kaiser, a title used in Germany that comes from Rome’s Julius Caesar.
Stark admitted that his approach doesn’t have a 100 percent success rate. “I’ve got students that are not as excited as I want them to be,” he said.
But for Jacob and classmate Jason Landfried, their Latin teacher helped them realize their passion. Stark said he’s “thrilled” that they want to become Latin teachers, too.
“They want to be teachers because they’ve seen the difference you can make as a teacher,” Stark said. “And that is a big deal.”
Other students don’t see themselves spending their careers in a classroom, but they look forward to their time in Room 225 for now.
“How happy I am after this class just gets me through the rest of the day,” Kenny said.