Q&A Barry Mess

Now that another school year is getting underway, At The Lake turned to a veteran educator, recently retired Badger High School science teacher Barry Mess to get his thoughts on teaching, memorable moments at school, kids today and life after the classroom. Mess, who grew up in St. Germain, in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, attended Northland Pines High School in Eagle River where he met his wife of 37 years, Terrie. Both graduated from UW-Whitewater, with Barry pursuing degrees in biology and chemistry with a coaching emphasis. A student teaching assignment at Badger during the semester before graduation lead to a full-time teaching position with the district, one he enjoyed for 35 years.

WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOU WANTED TO BECOME A TEACHER? WAS THERE A TEACHER THAT WAS PARTICULARLY INFLUENTIAL?

Becoming a teacher hit me while I was sitting in my college chemistry class listening to a lecture. I kept thinking, “I can do a better job of explaining this topic.” I realized this many times, so I made the decision to become a teacher. I loved school and learning from my first day of kindergarten. I can remember the name of every teacher I have had which means they were influential to me in some way.

WHAT WAS MOST REWARDING ABOUT TEACHING?

There is the short-term reward that teachers call the “Aha moment” when you see the light bulb click on and you realize that the student understands. There is the long-term reward when students show gratitude for your efforts in the form of thank you notes, some of which come after they have graduated. Over the years, I’ve received hundreds of such notes. In many cases, a teacher doesn’t really know if they influenced a student’s life or not, but if you work hard, show that you care about your students, and make an effort to connect with each one, then you cannot help but make a positive impact in their lives.

HOW HAVE KIDS CHANGED OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER AND DID YOU HAVE TO ADAPT YOUR TEACHING METHODS?

Quite honestly, kids have not changed that much over the course of my teaching career. What has changed is technology and the use of computers and cell phones as part of their everyday lives. With information right at their fingertips, students are much more likely to “Google” the answer than to use reasoning and critical thinking skills to arrive at an answer. I’ve had to increase my use of technology in the classroom, but I have always used a Socratic approach to teaching by asking questions and using what kids already know to help them learn to “connect the dots” and become better problem solvers.

CAN YOU SHARE ANY MEMORABLE SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS THAT DIDN’T TURN OUT AS PLANNED?

I was performing a chemistry show for elementary kids with a colleague, and we painted a phrase like “Science is Fun” on a piece of paper towel using a special solution. The words disappeared as the liquid evaporated and then burst into flame, burning the words into the paper. I then gave a short speech about lab safety. A small bit of the solution dripped onto my lab coat and a small boy kept waving his hands trying to catch my attention. Finally he blurted out, “Mr., Mr. your coat’s on fire!” I calmly removed my coat and submersed it in a bucket of water and went on like it was part of the show.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TEACHING CAREER?

In 1990, I was named Teacher of the Year and in 2013 I was named both District 17 and Southcentral Region Assistant Coach of the Year for football. The real highlights were receiving positive feedback from students throughout my career.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR RETIREMENT?

I would like to spend more time with my wife, who is also a retired teacher, as well as my children and grandchildren. I plan to travel a bit, do more hunting and fishing, work in the garden, read more and work on projects around the house. My wife and I will make a decision on what will be the next chapter in our lives. Most likely we will open a small business of an undecided nature — we have nothing but time to figure it out.

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