Cromwell – Blaise Messinger tells his fifth graders in Room 175 that he is going to teach them the secret to math.
He writes “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” on the white board. He tells the class to turn to the left and say the sentence to their neighbor, then turn to the right and say it in a funny, English accent.
The students happily comply, using their best Masterpiece Theater airs.
The sentence is an acronym designed to help them remember the sequence of figuring out a math equation. They will probably remember it when they get to high school, but perhaps not the painless way they learned it.
Messinger, an actor-turned-teacher, uses all kinds of techniques to engage his students, earning him on Tuesday the title of Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
Glimmers of his acting shine through as he stands at the front of the classroom at the Woodside Intermediate School. He’ll lean over and cup his ear, pretending not to hear a student who gives a wrong answer, so they’ll rethink and come up with right one.
His loud, clear voice hints at his past playing such roles as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet. His expressive face keeps the class laughing.
“I do voices. I pretend to bump my head. I’m shameless, shameless in what I’ll do to get their attention,” he said.
“I like to say teaching and acting is pretty much the same job with a tougher crowd and a six-hour show every day,” he said.
Keeping kids engaged is more critical than ever in a split-second world of texting, videos and the Internet.
“Look at everything we have to compete against,” he said. “They are sitting in that room for over six hours. Somebody called it ‘Edu-tainment.’ You really have to do it to keep their attention.”
Messinger, 53, who acted on stage in New York and Los Angeles and toured with the National Shakespeare Company, switched careers 14 years ago. It happened when his son, Ethan, was diagnosed with autism at age 4.
He was inspired by the pre-school teacher who went with him and his wife to visit various programs for Ethan; and then by his son’s new teacher, who educated them as well as Ethan.
“My wife and I realized what an excellent teacher can do, not just for the students, but for their families. I realized I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be able to make a difference in the life a child and that child’s family,” he said.
He got his first teaching job in an inner-city school in Los Angeles while he was earning his teaching degree through the Alternate Route to Certification. He discovered that he loved teaching.
“I learned what good teaching is all about. It’s not about ‘not leaving children behind’ or ‘races to the top’ or teacher evaluations. It’s about connecting. It’s about building bonds of belief and respect that remain in the hearts and minds of the students after they’ve left the classroom.”
“I believe that all children are just aching to learn. They want something desperately to rouse them out of the ennui and tedium. That’s where I come in. I make the connection. I force the relationship. I force them aboard the journey of discovery.”
His students, several of whom nominated him for the state Teacher of the Year award, say he is easily their favorite teacher.
“It is almost not like learning because everyone had so much fun in the classroom.
We would never want to leave at the end of the day,” said Cara Jordan, 11, now a six-grader.
Julia Lemmon, 11, said Messinger has a unique way of engaging students. One time, for example, he let students run down the hallway to learn about energy. Another time they took a “field trip” to the school bathroom to learn about how light reflects off mirrors.
His best piece of advice for new teachers to find ways to connect with students.
“Remember that it’s about you and that kid,” he said. “Everybody is going to try and tell you it’s other things, but it’s not. It all comes down to you and that kid, making that connection.”
Messinger, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Brown University and an MFA from the University of San Diego, says he, too, has learned from his students – lessons about joy, wonder and resiliency. While accepting his award, he got choked up as he talked about how much life as a teacher has changed him.
“I am now someone who makes a difference in the lives of others — someone who is trying to make the world a better place one child, one family at a time.”